Director: Giddens Ko
Cast: Deng Yu-kai, Kent Tsai, Eugenie Lie, Lin Pei-hsin, Carolyn Chen, James Lai, Tao Meng, Bonnie Liang
Watch Mon Mon Mon Monsters online in the UK: Shudder UK
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As if the title were not signifier enough, Mon Mon Mon Monsters announces itself as a creature feature right from its opening scene, where a hobo, wandering into the basement of an old building for shelter, is attacked by a pair of gravity-defying boogeywomen, who snatch and devour him like acrobatic zombies. These monsters, whose origins and relationship will only gradually be revealed, work together to feed off the weak and the marginalised – whether homeless folk, like their latest victim, or the debilitated and often demented elderly who live upstairs. Yet they are far from the only monsters in writer/director Giddens Ko’s film, which inspects the entrails of Taiwanese society’s power hierarchies.
As befits a film about class, much of Mon Mon Mon Monsters is set in a school. Friendless straight-A pupil Lin Shu-wei (Deng Yu-kei) has been framed by Tuan Ren-hao (Kent Tsai) and his gang for stealing money, just so they can enjoy seeing him dressed down and humiliated in front of the class. As the bullying escalates and gets physical, Buddhist teacher Ms Li (Carolyn Chen), determined to restore harmony, insists that Shu-wei’s tormentors join him in an after-school community service assignment helping the elderly. When the gang behaves with extreme disrespect towards the elderly under their care, Shu-wei joins in their bullying pranks, as much because he is in terror of Ren-hao as in need of friends. When they return to the retirement home after midnight to rob one of the elderly, they chance upon the younger monster (Lin Pei-hsin), injured in her predatory pursuit of them, and take her to their hideout in a long-abandoned swimming centre. There, chained up and defenceless, she becomes the plaything for the gang’s nastily aggressive whims, with only Shu-wei intervening on her behalf or feeding her the blood (his own) she needs to keep alive. Yet, in what will ultimately be a film involving more than one kind of revenge, the older monster (Eugenie Lie) will wreak bloody havoc in search of her missing sister.
Shu-wei and the monster are linked not just by the blood tube that occasionally runs from the boy’s arm to the girl’s mouth, but also by their shared status as victims of the gang’s terrorising, oppressive conduct and mean-spirited sadism. “If we didn’t capture it,” Ren-hao tells Shu-wei, indicating the creature tightly secured to a pole, “you would be up there.” Both Shu-wei and the monster are, in different ways, captives to Ren-hao’s domineering cruelty; both, when cornered, are very dangerous, and, as the human characters prove more and more monstrous in their behaviour, the monsters, for all their bloodthirsty ferocity, become more and more sympathetic. All these monsters, both literal and figurative, were made not born for their inhuman conduct – and even manipulative, vicious Ren-hao comes with a tragic backstory. Gradually, Shu-wei will realise that, in this dog-eat-dog microcosm of Taiwan, to defeat monsters, he must himself become one – but doing that makes him as bad as those he seeks to destroy.
“Owning a monster is awesome. It’s not a human being. We do whatever we want.” With these words, Ren-hao justifies his use of this young abductee as punching bag and torture target – in other words, as the repository for his own dark drives and the space on which to project his id. For Shu-wei too, the monster is a mirror, although, caught between violence and victimhood, he sees a rather more dynamic and complex reflection in the creature. The spectacle of psychopathic adolescents keeping their own monster chained up in the shadows recalls Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s DeadGirl (2008), and comes with similar metaphorical heft. For the monster represents the repressed of these errant teenagers, festering in the dark but desperate for release. Ren-hao’s toxic battle of wills with his teacher Miss Li, as well as the general picture of brutalism and anomie in the class room and the hyperreal stylisation of everything, also recall Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) – although the outcome here is quite different.
Much as the precise identity of the monster – part voodoo zombie, part vampire, part parasite-infested demon, part poor abused little girl (whether at the hands of her own father or of Ren-hao) – remains elusive, Ko’s film is also a peculiar hybrid of tones and genres, blending teen rites of passage, thriller, tragedy, (purposefully) immature comedy and very grim horror. If the older monster will eventually come out of the dark to commit her vengeful massacre, Shu-wei will find his own way to expose his fellow-students’ – and his own – inner monstrousness to the harsh light of day, in a coda that is as exhilarating as it is depressing. For Mon Mon Mon Monster suggests that the bullying in Taiwanese society is systemic, building outwards from the education system where it first becomes endemic – and that the whole patriarchal system needs to be burnt down. You can, if you like, laugh along with these boys’ malicious high-jinks and rebellious power plays, but amidst all the physical torments and outpourings of gore, the film is perhaps at its most transgressively incendiary when getting its viewers to understand, even root for, the slaughter of children (if not quite of innocents).
Mon Mon Mon Monsters is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.