Mon Mon Mon Monsters is Giddens Ko’s second feature-length film as director. Given that his first was a sweet romantic comedy about a group of high school friends who are all crushing on the same girl, the opening of this film might catch some viewers off-guard. I was expecting something slower, I suppose. High school drama with vague shadows of monster as metaphor. So when, a few minutes in, a homeless person is viciously torn apart by a pair of animalistic not-quite-zombies (with blood and guts on full display), I have to admit to perking up a bit in my seat.
In our introduction to these (maybe not the titular) monsters, we see a familial bond between them, as the elder of the two insists that the younger eat the heart. When, at the end of the night, they return to their cardboard box homes, tucked away down some dark and winding alley, they are immediately sympathetic. They care for each other. They are like stray animals. They don’t eat because they are cruel, they eat because they would starve otherwise. So when we are introduced to the group of high school boys who will make up our core group of characters, they are much more difficult to root for.
After the class’ resident social pariah, Lin, snitches on the group of bullies who harass him, led by the dangerously charming Ren-Hao, their teacher pairs Lin with his tormentors on a community service project, advising him unhelpfully to work on his social skills. Ren-Hao and his gang are seemingly sociopaths, turning every situation possible into an opportunity to harm others for their own amusement. And when they manage to capture a young monster, there’s really only one direction it can go.
“It’s not human. We can do whatever we want to it,” Ren-Hao declares, observing the whimpering, childlike creature as it writhes against its chains. And as their cruelty escalates, so too does the collateral damage from the elder monster’s search for their captive, leading towards an inevitable clash of monsters.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters is not a subtle film. It makes clear its intentions from the start. It is a loud, angsty, vicious, and bloody thing. Ren-Hao’s gang is cruel in the way that seemingly only teenagers can be. And though Lin romanticizes his role as would-be hero, he’s powerless to stop them. He wavers between wishing he could stand up to them, and getting caught up in the infectious feeling of camaraderie. In his complicity, he’s no better than the gang of gleeful sadists he’s stuck with, who in turn are, of course, no better than the monster they’ve captured.
The message of the film is simple and well-trodden territory. Humankind’s capacity for evil is tremendous, we’re the real monsters, complicity in the face of evil is evil in its own right, etc. It is bleak, even nihilistic, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard elsewhere. Mon Mon Mon Monsters isn’t saying anything new, but hot damn, does the film look good saying it.
It is perhaps a film whose parts are slightly greater than the sum. There are a half-dozen scenes that are so stylish, so well-composed, that they’ll stick in your head for a long while after. The sort of visuals that etch into some “Oh, that’s cool” part of your brain. I heard it remarked, leaving the theater, that Mon Mon Mon Monsters is “a purely aesthetic film,” and I believe the speaker may have meant that as a mark against. I’d have to agree, but I don’t think it’s at all a bad thing. Film is a visual medium, after all, and Mon Mon Mon Monsters is a monster flick that consistently paints fantastic visuals. It is also a monster flick in which every character is monstrous, which is something I can’t help but find endearing.