What happens when entitled teens with sociopathic tendencies stumble across a vulnerable victim that also happens to be a serialing killing “monster”? Taiwan director Gideons Ko tackles the murky morality of what constitutes a monster with the confronting and frequently unpleasant Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS.
Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS follows protagonist Shu-wei (Yu-Kai Deng), a high school student being bullied by a group of popular students – charismatic leader Ren-hao (Kent Tsai) and his followers Guo-feng (James Lai) and Wei-Zhu (Meng Tao). In a weak and ineffectual attempt to broker the peace, teacher Ms. Li (Carolyn Chen) forces Shu-wei to partner with his abusers for community service at a derelict apartment building filled with transient homeless people and elderly old folks.
From the cold open, the audience is aware that this space is haunted by a pair of creatures – one older (Eugenie Liu) and one younger (Pei-Hsin Lin) – who attack and eat humans. Following an attempt to rob one of the tenants, the boys stumble upon the creatures and, in an unexpected development, wind up knocking the younger one out before bringing her back to the empty pool where they spend their time.
From here Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS changes gears from an Attack The Block “teens vs monsters” film into a critical – and icky – examination of privilege, abuse, and power. Once they discover what they have, and that she can’t easily be killed, the boys, including Ren-hao’s girlfriend, Si-hua (Bonnie Liang) and a hesitant, but subservient Shu-wei, tie the young creature up and begin torturing it.
In many ways, this is a variation of Deadgirl, the 2008 American independent film about a group of teenage boys who find, restrain and sexually assault a living dead girl. In both cases the film is not about the quote/unquote monster (here the creature’s existence is quickly hand-waved away with an Internet search montage that clarifies that the two women, revealed to be sisters, are victims of a “voodoo master” who possessed them with demons, a plot point that comes to nothing).
In reality, Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS is chiefly concerned with the way that the powerful abuse their social capital to hurt and demean others. This is exemplified by the triad of Ren-hao as the sociopath in charge, the dangerous, but (literally) defanged creature and Shu-wei, the former victim who is willing to participate in the torture and imprisonment of another soul if it means that he is no longer targeted for bullying.
It’s a (mostly) fascinating idea, made more complex by the lack of adults. With only Ms. Li and the elderly senior citizen that the boys steal from appearing in a significant capacity, Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS is set in a world free of the rules and regulations that accompany adult, and more specifically parental, guidance. Ko’s screenplay addresses this explicitly only once, when, after Ren-hao aggressively beats a fellow student, Ms. Li publicly dresses him down, suggesting that he has turned out badly because his father is a drug addict and criminal. However, the fact that this is introduced by an educator who is ineffectual (at best) and dangerously hands-off (at worst) undercuts the argument that there is a reasonable explanation for the boy’s behaviour.
The reality is that Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS is a film with a split focus problem: on one hand it features high octane creature attack sequences, which expand in scope as the film progresses and the older sister ventures further into the more populous areas of the city in search of her absent sibling. The flip side is a despicable character drama about the extent to which a bullied teen with side with his tormentors, even if it means inflicting the same torture (and worst) on another vulnerable person.
The former is the stuff that advertisements and pull-quotes are made of. Several of the sequences are tense, bloody good fun and one – when the older sister tries to attack the old vet – has a great comedic stinger when their stand-off is interrupted by a nosey neighbour. This is when Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS is more of a traditional creature feature romp and it’s delightfully fun.
The latter (dominant) storyline about the teens is actually more compelling, despite also being quite a bit heavier. However, it never goes beyond surface level characterizations and too often walks the line of glamourizing their de-humanizing behaviour; there’s simply too much time spent on the boys laughing as they gleefully torture and act out. They’re legitimately terrible characters, so the sole enjoyment of these scenes is the knowledge that they will eventually receive their comeuppance. It’s a looooong time coming, however; for a lengthy portion of the film, the unfiltered focus on juvenile delinquency dilutes the film’s message while simultaneously going on for far too long. This is never more true than the lengthy denouement that follows the meeting of the two storylines.
There’s meant to be something heroic about the way that things shake out with Shu-wei, Ren-hao and the creatures, but it fails to satisfy because the film, like the creature we’ve seen tortured for nearly two hours, has been defanged. Ultimately the tonal disparity and the unwillingness of Ko to address the heightened stakes that he’s created for his characters makes this a genre film that’s only about halfway there.
Mon Mon Mon MONSTERS is now available on DVD and Blu. It is also available to stream on Shudder.