The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival is underway, and we at ComicsVerse will be there to share all our favorites from the fest.

THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER director Mei-juin Chen specializes in unveiling the secrets of hidden cultures. Chen has explored subcultures through her documentaries like HOLLYWOOD HOTEL and THE BLACK KUNG FU EXPERIENCE. However, THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER represents her first foray into narrative filmmaking. Chen continues her cinematic anthropology in this film by giving the viewer a look into the gangster culture of Taiwan through the eyes of a young girl named Shaowu (Ally Chiu). The film is both heart-warming and surprising, but it reinforces Chen’s greatest skill as a director: revealing the unseen to an eager audience.

ComicsVerse: This is your first full-length narrative feature film after doing a series of documentaries. What is the major difference between directing a narrative film and documentary?

Mei-juin Chen: The main difference, of course, is that with a fiction film you’re working with actors and a screenplay. You’re turning words on the page into images on film. With a documentary, your job is to uncover the story in real life. Also, the crew is much bigger on a fiction film — at least that was my experience. You’re in charge of a lot more people. There’s much more to think about.

CVTHE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER does a great job of reinventing the classic archetypes of a gangster. What was your inspiration for the film?

Chen: The primary inspiration came from an experience I had in college. The screenwriter [Hua Po Jung] and I were members of Sight and Sound Club at Taiwan University. One day we decided to go on a road trip in the mountains. In the middle of nowhere, the motorcycle we were riding broke down. Night was falling and it was getting cold. We didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, a Cadillac appeared. It was the most unexpected thing — a big old Cadillac in the middle of the mountains in Taiwan.

The driver rolled down the window and asked if we needed a ride. He was a rough looking guy with gold chains and tattoos and we were quite intimidated. But we got in. Next to him was his daughter. She was probably about 12. As we drove along, I watched the way they interacted. It was obvious they really got along. You could see the warmth in this tough guy. His humanity. Also, my uncle was a gangster. He was the black sheep of the family. His dad (my grandfather) was a judge.

CLICK: Want more interviews from the NYAFF? Check out our interview with director Yue Song

CV: Did you intentionally want to subvert the expectations of the gangster genre with your film?

Chen: The gangster film has always been a masculine genre. Women in these movies typically are limited to a few basic roles: the loyal girlfriend, the femme fatale, the crime victim. Men create these roles, women inhabit them. I wanted to open things up by introducing a female perspective, the perspective of a young woman, Shaowu, the gangster’s daughter. For much of the film, we see the gangsters through Shaowu’s eyes. It’s a teenage girl’s point of view. It’s her story.

The Gangster's Daughter

CV: Did your anthropology background influence how you approached the film?

Chen: One of my goals in the film was to document the world of old-school Taiwanese gangsters, the milieu they inhabited, their way of life, which is disappearing. Also, gangster films in Asia are often very stylized. I wanted a more naturalistic feel for my film, one closer to real life. My training in anthropology and ethnographic film definitely influenced my approach to the material.

CV: How did you develop the characters with the actors?

Chen: For the less experienced actors, we rehearsed quite a bit, did acting exercises, that sort of thing. For the more experienced actors, we discussed the characters they were playing. But I also gave them the freedom to develop their roles on their own. I was open to suggestion — as long as they stayed true to the story. And there’s the old saying that at least 70% of the performance is in the casting. I think that was definitely the case in this movie.

CLICK: Check out our interview with great South Korean director Lee Joon-ik

CV: How did you strike a balance between gangster film and coming-of-age film? 

Chen: Finding a consistent tone to balance the two parts of the story was tricky. My solution was to keep things anchored in the relationships between the characters. Between Shaowu and her father Keigo, between Keigo and his fellow gangsters, and between Shaowu and all the others, who became a kind of a surrogate family for her — but only a temporary family, because in the end, it couldn’t last. Keigo’s gangster story is Shaowu’s coming-of-age story.

CV: What advice would you give to new filmmakers? 

Chen: Here’s my advice: Follow your passion. Listen to others but be true to yourself. Find good collaborators who you trust, and who share your vision and want to help you succeed. Don’t give up.

Check out the rest of ComicsVerse’s coverage of the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival!
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