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Mon Mon Mon Monsters
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by Jay Seaver

"Oh, yes, there are monsters to frighten a kid here."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: The jokey stammer in the title of "Mon Mon Mon Monsters" implies a playful irony that is not there at all; the latest from Giddens Ko doesn't quite take pleasure in its cruelty, but it is unflinching in how it uses school bullying as its backdrop for a supernatural horror story. A lot of viewers might hit the point of enough being enough or outright disbelief even before the dismemberment starts in earnest, although they probably shouldn't.

Even before the story proper starts, it's clear that Ko is looking at empathy for the marginalized, as the first thing the audience sees is a convenience store operated by an old woman who probably should have been able to retire years ago trying to get her developmentally-disabled grandson to learn how to make change, while chasing away a homeless man. From there, we go even further around to see a pair of ghouls - humanoid creatures somewhere on the continuum between vampires and zombies. The sun coming up, they retreat even further, into boxes that seem too small to contain their spindly bodies. That the first image of the undead is that they are vulnerable is important, as is the fact that this sort of cruelty exists outside of high school.

High school, on the other hand, is where Lin Shu-wei (Teng Yu-kai) is currently having things thrown at him at the head of the class as teacher Ms. Li (Deng Yu-kai practically smirks; he's been accused of stealing the money for the class trip. When he brings proof that bully Duan Ren-hao (Kent Tsai) and his friends Guo-feng (Lai Jung-cheng) and Wei-zhu (Tao Bo-meng) did it and accused Lin for laughs, her response is that it's no good to throw accusations around and assigns them to do some community service together. This leads to coming back to try and steal from a practically-catatonic old veteran at night, when this neighborhood of forgotten souls is the ghouls' hunting grounds. They barely escape, capturing the smaller ghoul (Lin Pei-hsin), taking it back to the school's abandoned pool house and starting to torture it in the way little psychopaths who find someone who can't talk and seems to regenerate from injury will do. Lin doesn't like it, but goes along both because he's now more afraid of his bullies and because being part of a secret makes him feel special. He does try and research the beast, eventually finding a story of people who went missing from a voodoo cult decades ago. One looks like their captive, and the other is her sister (Eugenie Liu) - and in addition for a hunger for human flesh, she seems to have the instincts necessary to track her kid sister.

Ko, whose previous film as writer and director was the much more sentimental You Are the Apple of My Eye, doesn't much go in for sneaking up on the audience and getting them to realize that, as much as these two may eat people, the real monsters are those who torment others for fun: Ren-hao and his friends are basically terrible from the start, Ms. Li seems less interested in stiffening Lin's spine than avoiding paperwork or contact with angry parents, and the only real question is whether Lin will ultimately wind up throwing in with those above or below him in the pecking order. The trouble with how mean kids can be, though, is that it becomes numbing after a while, and if one doesn't get numb, one might just tap out, because after a while there's a limit to how much more cruelty one will take before seeing some comeuppance. The three male bullies are nearly interchangeable, and the boss's similarly mean girlfriend isn't even given a name despite often being the most interesting.

The shift to them having to stop the sister of the monster they captured is kind of arbitrary, a plot-required shift into temporary heroism on their pays that doesn't ring true (there is, perhaps, not enough selfishness expressed on the way to making elaborate plans). On the other hand, this stuff shows Ko having an impressive level of skill where horror action is concerned; as the elder sister makes her way toward the school, her attacks become more bloody and spectacular. There's also a potency to these scenes beyond mere displays of blood - early ones will often underline just how vicious Ren-hao can be when he decides he wants to, and the climactic sequence, on top of being one of the uses of sunlight as a hazard for vampires since Near Dark, never wanders very far from the moral dilemmas Lin faces, from how ugly betrayal is even when you're sure it might be self-defense to whether doing the right thing too late is worth it.

But, man, the monsters. They're plaintive and by design sometimes easier to connect with than even the student not tormenting their classmate Lin, expressive and eventually sympathetic despite being nocturnal cannibals. Ko and actresses Eugenie Liu & Lin Pei-hsin (and, presumably, their stunt doubles) playing them hit upon just the right combination of humanity and animalistic instinct that they naturally pull one in and as horrifying as one cutting a bloody trail through Taipei may be, there's something to the rage that speaks to the marginalized and exploited - she'd stayed out of sight for decades, feeding off society's unwanted until someone took the one thing she cared about, so now the deal is off. I'd almost rather see a dialogue-free film about the older sister trying to rescue her sibling from teenage psychopaths than the one we've got.

Of course, the one we've got is pretty good, too, just maybe a bit too much, even if it's about the human capacity for inhumanity. On the other hand, if you like your horror to emphasize theme rather than origins and mythology while not screwing around with the violence and gore, this may be exactly the thing you're looking for.

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originally posted: 07/14/17 07:09:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Giddens Ko

Written by
  Giddens Ko

  Yu-kai Deng
  Kent Tsai
  Jun-cheng Lai
  Bo-meng Tao

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