Gatao, a series of Taiwanese crime dramas, are shaping up to be one of the world’s more promising ongoing screen franchises. Gatao: The Last Stray (2021) is the third film to date and easily the strongest of the set. Gatao is an old term taken from Portuguese, literally meaning ‘big cat’, but in Taiwan has come to mean the organised crime gangs that operate there – akin to triads, mafiosa, and yakuza.
One of the strengths of Gatao is that, while all three films occupy the same fictional universe, each focuses upon a different character. While the second film was based around the North Fort gang leader Ren (played by Wang Shih-Sian then, but Alex Ko here), this third turn instead concentrates on his lieutenant Qing (Cheng Jen-shuo). The approach allows the production team to build an ongoing world but also makes each Gatao release easily watchable on its own. Supporting characters may continue from film to film, but if you have never seen Gatao (2015) or Gatao 2 (2018) there is nothing preventing you from starting here.
Qing, an orphan who has grown up among his gatao brothers, begins to romance the photographer Chi (Nikki Hsieh). At the same time, a construction deal between the North Fort group and their southern rival is threatened by Skai (Chien Sheng), the ambitious son-in-law of the southern chairman. For Qing it poses a growing struggle between fighting with his brothers to defend North Fort and keeping Chi safe from harm.
The Last Stray presents a distinctly different sort of story to the preceding films. While it repeats the oft-employed trope of territorial gang warfare, in this case that presents more of a backdrop than a focus. Instead the film is dominated by Qing and Chi’s romance. It is comparatively realistic relationship that develops as well, unlike the sorts of hyperbolic melodrama that typify North Asian cinema. Hsieh and Cheng are both excellent in their roles, but it is Cheng who is the particular highlight among the cast. He gives Qing a balance between being the sort of man who would genuinely care for a loved one and the sort of man who does not hesitate to murder if his criminal job requires it. While clearly very talented, Hsieh does not get quite the same opportunity to shine. There is a degree to which her character exists to service Qing’s development; an opportunity feels missed as a result.
The broader gang conflict explores territory that should be familiar for any fan of the genre. Looking to disrupt the peace between rival groups, the so-called Big-Skai conspires to flood North Fort territory with drugs and reap the benefits when the gangs go to war. Loyalty and honour comes up a lot, as is the fashion of the genre. Events are punctuated with tightly choreographed and effective action scenes, including a particularly over-the-top suburban brawl with baseball bats and a tense shoot-out inside a drug factory.
Chiang Jui-chih, an experienced director for Taiwanese television, makes his feature debut here. He acquits himself marvellously. The Last Stray does not reinvent or transform anything, nor does it expand far beyond its genre expectations, but it is well paced, emotive, and overall very effective. I could watch strong crime flicks like this all day.