The Gangster’s Daughter (Shaowu the Bad)


There’s nothing like a quiet dad-daughter meal.

(2017) Drama (Wild Dog Productions) Jack Kao, Ally Chiu, Ko Yu Luen, Stephanie Lin, Wu Min, Huang Jih Ping, Kao Meng Chieh, Ma Ru Feng. Directed by Mei-Juin Chen

We all lament lost opportunities. When those rare occasions come along that give us second chances, the smart thing to do is to grab them with both hands. The thing about second chances though is that they aren’t always easy.

Keigo (Kao) is a gangster in Taipei. It’s a life that garners him success and respect but costs him his marriage; eventually his wife and daughter Shaowu move to remote Kinmen Island, a county I Taiwan that is geographically closer to mainland China than it is to Taipei. The two women move in with Keigo’s former mother-in-law who has nothing but contempt for her ex son-in-law.

Years later Shaowu is a hard-to-handle teen. Her mother has passed away unexpectedly, leaving her with her grandmother as sole adult guardian. She has a brief meeting with her dad at her mom’s funeral but returns to school where bullies pull a mean prank on her best friend. Shaowu reacts by dumping a pail of manure on the head of her tormentor. Unfortunately, the boy is politically connected and grandma is forced to reluctantly call in Keigo to handle the situation. Realizing she can’t handle her granddaughter who has been expelled from school, she entreats Keigo to take her to Taipei.

Keigo mainly runs a karaoke club where his girlfriend Coco is hostess. At first, Shaowu has a hard time adjusting but soon she makes friends at her school and Keigo’s crew takes a liking to her, particularly Coco who acts like a surrogate mom. He begins to allow himself to dream that he can have a normal life with Shaowu, opening up a restaurant with her someday.However the idyllic family in the making is disturbed by two events; the return of Keigo’s boss from an extended trip to Thailand with plans on extending his interests into narcotics, and a feud between some of Keigo’s younger gang and a corrupt cop. When a shoot-out leaves two of his closest friends dead, Keigo knows he has to act, even if it will leave Shaowu an orphan. Shaowu for her part has strongly identified with her dad and yearns to take up his criminal career, something her dad definitely does not want for her. Something has to give.

This Taiwanese film was a big hit at the box office in Taiwan but has struggled to find an audience outside of where it was made, a troubling trend in Asian movies as of late. The movie recalls some of the great gangster movies of Hong Kong of the 90s with a certain reverence for the criminal lifestyle which many in Asia equate with true freedom. We rarely see Keigo doing anything criminal other than getting into an occasional bar fight and he takes a definite stand on selling drugs which most true gangsters wouldn’t hesitate to do.

Kao, who has been called “the Asian Al Pacino” has an engaging smile and a brooding demeanor. He’s not above losing his temper with his men or his daughter for that matter. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life and he wears every one of them on his face. Most of all, he doesn’t want his daughter to follow in his footsteps and dissuades her at every opportunity. There is a soft side to him that comes out unexpectedly at times but when he need to be hard, he’s like iron.

Chiu and Kao have a very realistic relationship and the two have a chemistry that would be enviable in almost any film. The heart of the movie is the bond between the two and the veteran Kao and the ingénue Chiu bring it to life. Chiu is an expressive actress with a face that shows an array of emotions even when she isn’t doing much physically. She has a truly bright future as an actress and I hope more of her films make it to the States.

This isn’t what I’d call action-packed even though the title contains the word “gangster” but it isn’t typical of that genre. There are a few scenes that are violent but by and large the criminals are just chatting amongst themselves or chilling in the karaoke bar. There is the shoot-out we spoke about and a reckoning late in the movie but mostly, this is about a slice of life more than it is about a slice of death.

The acting can be a bit stiff for American tastes particularly early on in the film and the movie might be a little longer than American audiences can tolerate in a movie that is paced this slowly but it is certainly worth the patience to check out. The characters are richly drawn and there is a sweetness at the core of the film that I liked very much. This is certainly a film to hunt down and check out.

The New York Asian Film Festival is a wonderful event that exposes the cinema of Asia to an appreciative audience; I only wish that more non-Big Apple residents could experience some of these films, few of which will make it to neighborhood art houses let alone VOD. Hopefully a few of them will get some wider exposure somewhere down the line; otherwise interested viewers will have to do some digging to find an online service that specializes in streaming Asian films like Fandor and AsianCrush that might carry some of these fine films down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Kao and Chiu have a remarkable chemistry. Chiu is certainly a star in the making
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is a bit stiff in places. The film is drawn out a bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mei-Juin Chen is best known for her documentaries; this is her first stab at a narrative feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Look & See:A Portrait of Wendell Berry

The Search for General Tso


A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

A documentary that will make you hungry to see it again an hour later.

(2014) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Cecilia Chiang, Peter Kwong, Bonnie Tsui, Liang Xiao Jin, Philip Chiang, Andrew Coe, Chef Peng Chang-Kuei, Harley Spiller, Tammy Fong, Sue Lee, David Leong, Cyrstyl Mo, Wing Wah Leong, Don Siegel, Ed Schoenfeld, Wing Yee Leong, Renqiu Yu, Fuschia Dunlop, Wang Pinduan, Robert G. Lee, Fred Wong, Susan Carter, Ella Lee, Lily Han. Directed by Ian Cheney

Florida Film Festival 2015

There probably isn’t an American above the age of five who hasn’t had Chinese food of one sort or another during their lives and for a good percentage of Americans above that age, Chinese is a regular cuisine on the menus of our lives. And of all of those, most have at least tried if not fallen in love with General Tso’s Chicken, the most popular dish in Chinese cuisine in the United States, and other than pizza and maybe tacos, the most popular ethnic dish in America.

But how did it get to be that way? Who is General Tso exactly and why did this chicken dish get named for him? Was it General Tso himself who invented the dish or did someone else do that? And how do you make it?

Good questions all and each one is answered in this lively documentary which has a very compact one hour and thirteen minute run time. Cheney interviews a wide variety of subjects from historians and authors on Chinese-American culture to restaurant owners and chefs. Here he paints a vivid picture of a race that came to America’s gold fields in the 19th century and stayed on as laborers. Racial prejudices on the West Coast, which were extreme when it came to Chinese workers, led to the enactment of the Exclusion Act which made it nearly impossible for new workers to immigrate to the United States and made life intolerable for those who were already here, who then spread throughout the country with essentially only two careers available to them; launderers and restaurant owners.

This is much cultural anthropology as it is foodie doc, and while there are some nifty animations that help keep things light, the undercurrent has some surprising depth to it as we see how difficult to achieve the American dream was for Asians even in recent times, as one Missouri restaurant owner calmly explains how his father’s restaurant was dynamited shortly before it was to open and even once it did, there were picketers exhorting him to return to China since the local white population didn’t want Asian business owners, and this was less than 50 years ago.

It also raises the question of authenticity. General Tso’s chicken, which has a sweet and spicy taste to it, is expressly for American tastes; you won’t find the dish in this form in China, particularly in the Hunan province where the real General Tso (yes, there was one) once lived. We also discover that a chef from Taipei claims to have invented the dish, although it was adapted by a more famous New York chef after visits to Taipei and took off in the ’70s to become one of those ubiquitous menu items you find in nearly every Chinese restaurant, take-out place or bistro.

While many purists decry the dish as inauthentic, one has to wonder what authentic really means in a cuisine that varies greatly from province to province in China and has evolved a great deal over the years. Maybe you won’t find this when you visit China but what matters more is whether or not you yourself like it and crave it. It may not be the kind of Chinese food you get in, say, Shanghai, but if you can’t go to Shanghai and check out the real McCoy you can at least taste what you get in Springfield, Missouri and enjoy it just as much.

REASONS TO GO: Informative. Lively. Doesn’t take itself too seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: Lots and lots of talking heads. WILL make you hungry for Chinese food whether you like it or not.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that would worry all but the most overly fussy parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: McFarland USA

Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu)


In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

(1994) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Sylvia Chang, Winston Chao, Chao-jung Chen, Chit-Man Chan, Yu Chen, Ya-Lei Kuei, Chi-Der Hong, Gin-Ming Hsu, Huei-Yi Lin, Shih-Jay Lin, Chin-Cheng Lu, Cho-Gin Nei, Yu-Chien Tang, Chung Ting, Cheng-Fen Tso, Man-Sheng Tu, Chuen Wang, Shui Wang, Hwa Tu, Michael Taylor. Directed by Ang Lee

Films For Foodies

One of my favorite cuisines is Chinese. Done well (which is sadly rare where I live) it is flavorful, fresh and filling. Cuisine is in many ways a reflection of the philosophy of life of the originating culture. China is simple on the surface but very complex the further you delve into it. The same can be said about families, not just in China but in all cultures.

Chu (Lung) is an old school chef, once one of the most honored in Taipei. He is semi-retired now, living with his three adult unmarried daughters. His wife passed away some years back and he is lonely even in a house full of girls. They have modern sensibilities which puzzle him. There was a time when a father’s word was absolute but those days are gone.

Jia-Jen (Yang) is his eldest. Nine years previously, her heart was broken by a suitor who abandoned her. She eventually converted to Christianity with all the fervor of a convert which has caused some friction in the household. She works as a school nurse and has given up on love – until a volleyball coach (Hsu) begins to pay attention to her.

Jia-Chien (Wu) works for an airline as an executive and is fiercely independent, guarding that independence like a mama bear with a cub. She had once wanted nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps but in Chinese society women were not chefs – only at home did they ever cook. She sometimes meets up with Raymond (Chan), an old lover with privileges.

Jia-Ning (Y-W. Wang), the youngest, works at a fast-food joint and begins a relationship with Guo Lun (Chen) who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jia-Ning’s fickle friend whose flightiness is beginning to wear on Guo Lun.

 

On Sundays, Chu prepares an extraordinary meal for all three of his daughters. At table, they share news of each other’s lives and sometimes drop announcements on the family of varying degrees of earth-shattering capability. Chu is being courted by Mrs. Liang (Kuei), the widowed mother of single mom Jin-Rong (Chang) who is almost like a fourth daughter. Mrs. Liang is always accompanied by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke which brings out the Dragon Lady stereotypes but makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the fragrant clouds of steam that rise from Chu’s gastronomic creations.

There are elements of farce here, as well as soap opera qualities. Each daughter represents a different daughterly virtue in Chinese culture, and each one has her own secret. Chu is not especially pleased with retirement; it doesn’t take much convincing to send him scurrying to his old restaurant to assist Uncle Wen (Wang), an old family friend – and yet he seems to take much more satisfaction from the meals he prepares for his girls, even though they don’t seem to appreciate it much.

Lee spends a great deal of time focusing on the food and its preparation – the entire first scene is essentially a how-to on how Chu prepares one of his epic Sunday dinners. You will be craving Chinese food by the time the first scene is over; you’ll be needing it like a junkie needs heroin by the time the movie is complete. Food is important in Chinese culture and Lee gives it the kind of reverence and due that the French accord a great meal.

 

I like Lung’s performance very much; he sometimes comes off as clueless but one gets the sense that he knows a lot more than what those around him give him credit for (and in the movie’s climax he proves that point beyond a shadow of a doubt). His relationships with his daughters, Wen and Madame Liang are separate, different but all pursued with kindness and tenderness. This is a man who loves to feed people not just physically but in the soul as well.

His daughters are a different bunch, all of whom are stereotypes in a sense but still accorded personalities of their own. Like me, you are likely to form opinions of them based on your own particular point of view informed by your own experiences in life. I won’t judge here; the performances are all solid and you will love them or hate them as individuals but you will have an opinion. These are not the meek, submissive Asian women of a different age – even Jia-Jen who seems the meekest of the three has a core of iron.

Some will find the lives of the daughters a bit soap opera-esque and that may be a turn-off for those sorts. I can understand that; it’s a fair criticism. For my part, I didn’t really mind. When looked at as a cohesive whole, the entanglements of their lives are as dense and complex as the entanglements of our own. If we’re lucky.

Like any Chinese feast, this is meant to be savored slowly and enjoyed for a lifetime. I haven’t seen Lee’s preceding film The Wedding Banquet but it is said to be superior. One of these days I’ll have to check it out. In the meantime, I highly recommend this delectable morsel. If you love Chinese cooking, Chinese cinema, or family dramas – or any combination thereof – this is a meal that was meant just for you.

WHY RENT THIS: A lovely entwining of family and food. Funny in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit hard to follow sometimes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bad language and adult situations as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening sequence, depicting the detailed preparation of a Sunday lunch, took more than a week to film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with director Lee and his long-time producer partner James Schamus newly recorded for the DVD version which arrived in 2002.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tortilla Soup

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

The Taiwan Oyster


I wouldn't buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

I wouldn’t buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

(2013) Drama (Spoonbill) Billy Harvey, Jeff Palmiotti, Leonora Lim, Erin King, Fu-Kuei Huang, Chia-Ying Kuo, Joseph Shu, Sean Scanlan, Will Mounger, Jimi Moe, Hai-Sen Ni, Eva Liao, Michael Jian, Catherine Li, Magnus von Platen, Bob Bloodworth, Bin-he Feng, Klairinette Wu. Directed by Mark Jarrett

 Florida Film Festival 2013

When you’re an expatriate in a country radically different from your own, it’s not that hard to sometimes be caught by the current that flows between cultures, adrift on that current without much effort on your own part. When that happens, ascertaining what the right thing to do is can be murky viewing at best. It’s easy to do the right thing for the wrong reasons in circumstances like that.

Simon (Harvey) and Darin (Palmiotti) are a couple of Americans living in Taiwan. They earn their living as kindergarten teachers by day and put together a very dodgy fanzine by night. Their ‘zine, called The Oyster is their ticket out or so Darin thinks. Simon just wants to write for any magazine. He has an opportunity to return home but he’s unsure what to do. About anything, really.

One night the two of them are drinking with some fellow ex-pats when tragedy strikes. One of their number dies in a terrible miscalculation of his own limitations. He has no family to claim his body and the state will eventually cremate his body and dispose of the remains in some anonymous grave. However, Simon discovers to his dismay that the man signed his “funeral wall” – a wall in the apartment Darin and Simon share in which they and fellow ex-pats have left instructions on what to do if they should die in Taiwan. The two realize they must claim the body and bury it in the right spot, a mournful song by Hank Williams blaring on their boom box.

This is easier said than done. An officious clerk (Feng) won’t release the body to non-relatives and their attempts to disguise themselves as American embassy officials is embarrassing at best. So they steal the body – with the help of a sympathetic clerk (Lim) who Simon quickly develops a crush on, feelings which are reciprocated.

The two then take a journey throughout Taiwan, trying to find the perfect place to bury their countryman, whom they barely knew. As they discover Taiwan, they begin to discover a sense of responsibility that they both have been lacking and figure out that growing up doesn’t have to be so painful after all – but it always is.

Taiwan is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to make a decent-looking movie while filming there but Jarrett and cinematographer Mike Simpson have good eyes and make a great-looking movie. It’s worth seeing for the visuals alone.

Darin, who in indie-quirky fashion rips the sleeves off of all his shirts (which I don’t think he understands how that is the 21st century equivalent of a mullet) and Simon both start off the film as kind of typical young guys who are more interested in their next good time than in making something of themselves. Simon in particular is capable of deciding nothing, preferring instead to drift on whatever wind finds him. Darin is not much better but he at least instigates things, although they are often the wrong things.

Harvey and Palmiotti are pleasantly surprising with strong onscreen presences the both of them. They have good chemistry together and the bickering between them, which sounds a lot like good friends in their mid-20s, is believable. Lim is there pretty much as a love interest and as an audience surrogate; her character is a third wheel at times and she knows it. Still, Nikita (her character’s name) can sense the potential in Simon and while he isn’t ready for a relationship with anyone, he is changed for the better for his relationship with Nikita.

Jarrett characterizes this as a Texas road film set in Taiwan and that’s as succinct an appraisal of the film as you’re likely to get. There is a good deal of insight here into the nature of being a young man with no direction in a foreign land. While the plot is resonant of other incidents (and the very self-aware Darin probably knows it – he’s more interested in becoming a local legend than doing right by a man he barely knew) it also carries with it a kind of Texas feel to it; while there’s no sagebrush or badland prairie to be seen here, Simon and Darin could easily have been traveling from Plano as they were from Taipei. Larry McMurtry, the noted author, would certainly recognized some of his own style here as would Tim Burton – the ending reminded me a bit of Big Fish in some ways (more in the feel of it than anything else – nobody turns into a giant catfish here).

The screening I was attending was plagued by technical problems, causing it to run late into the night and so I was fairly tired when I saw it which might have something to do with me not giving it a higher rating. I have changed my rating upwards since I saw it, something I rarely do and chances are if you ask me a week from now what I’d give it a higher rating still. Some movies grow on you long after you’ve seen it and this is one of those movies for me. That’s certainly something to consider when deciding whether to see it or not yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. A road picture with insight. Resonates like the work of Larry McMurtry and to an extent, Tim Burton.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some morbid humor, a bit of bad language, drinking, smoking and drug use and some sexuality – not a Disney film by any means.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jarrett was inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which is quoted at the beginning of the film) and his own experiences while residing in Taiwan from 1999-2001.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has been on the festival circuit for the past year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Magical Universe