Who are the real monsters among us? That’s the question lurking at the heart of writer and director Giddens Ko’s sophomore effort, mon mon mon MONSTERS, which closes this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. Taking a radical departure from his 2011 romantic high school dramedy You Are the Apple of My Eye (a, ahem, monster hit), mon mon mon MONSTERS is as dark, violent and nihilistic as Apple was bright, fluffy and bittersweet. Inspired by Mikael Hafstrom’s Evil, MONSTERS is far more literal in its horror aspirations, replacing Hafstrom’s victimized younger students with a supernatural creature, and the ineffective Nazi-ish teachers with ineffective Buddhist ones. What the films do share is a lack of greater insight into the nature and source of violence and bullying. Ko’s genre-melding film is nonetheless compulsively watchable, with flashes of dark, pithy comedy that carry it past its lumpier parts. MONSTERS’ charming young cast and Ko’s grasp of striking visuals and ceaselessly current thematic undertones should help the film fare well in Taiwan upon its summertime release, and in most of Asia. A host of diverse festivals — first and foremost Asia-focused and genre events — will line up to check this out.
The existence of the film’s titular monsters is never ambiguous, as Ko begins the action in one of Taipei’s myriad, dank underground passages, where a homeless man is descended upon by a pair of vampiric, CHUD-like quasi-zombies. It’s just a taste of the gore to come. The next morning in a local high school, straight-A student Lin Shu-wei (Deng Yu-Kai) is the target for the class bullies, subjected to all manner of in-class humiliations — with the blessing of his passive, completely useless teacher Ms. Li (Carolyn Chen) — for stealing some money. Naturally he didn’t do it, and was framed for the petty theft by the head bully, the sadistic, handsome Ren-Hao (Kent Tsai of HBO Asia original series The Teenage Psychic). After getting what he believes is evidence of his innocence, Ms. Li turns the tables and convinces Lin he should repent for his actions anyway and assigns him to community service, aided by Ren-Hao and his mates, Guo-Feng (Lai Jun-Cheng) and Wei-Zhu (Tao Bo-Meng).
High school’s a bitch.
During their community service, a sort of meals-on-wheels for the elderly, the newly formed gang abuses the seniors they’re supposed to be helping in heinous ways, complete with gleeful selfies. Ko lays it on thick: These kids are reprehensible, and the fundamentally sweet, previously meek Lin soon comes to enjoy the power he finds himself wielding with his new “friends.” After robbing a war veteran late one night (they think there’s gold in an old suitcase, a McGuffin if ever there was one), they stumble upon the monsters, and when the younger (Lin Pei-Hsin) gives chase, she’s hit by a car. They take her to their hangout, where things quickly spiral into violence and outright torture — for her.
By making everyone in the story such utter slime, Ko doesn’t have to stretch much to make his point: The real monsters are Lin and Ren-Hao, the former fully understanding his descent into viciousness and choosing to do nothing about it, the latter finally finding a punching bag of his own to unleash his frustrations on. Ko the director does a nice job of creating a separate, almost surreal world for the kids to exist in outside of school, the abandoned hideaway suitably gonzo for their cruel experiments. It’s a world governed by its own bizarre moral code and pecking order. But Ko the writer never offers up more than passing suggestions for Ren-Hao’s rage (an absentee father may be a factor), and Lin’s family, his background and the root of his vanishing goodness are never illuminated. But the film does have a chilling cloud of rage hanging over it stemming from a vivid sense of retribution — a sense of “My turn!” that’s eerily resonant these days.
Things pick up in the third act when the monster’s older sister (Eugenie Liu) begins a rampage while looking for her missing sibling and Ren-Hao (helped along by his smart, mean-girl girlfriend) finds a vengeful use for his hostage. It starts a bloody war of attrition that ends in tragedy, just not for the characters we’d expect it for; Ko makes it hard to care for any of the kids.
The cocktail of dark comedy and violence muddles the message on occasion, but largely works. Inspired moments, like when the boys use a portrait of Chiang Kai-shek as a weapon and the elder monster’s visible confusion when an angry neighbor interrupts one of her feasts, couch others of dead seriousness, with Lin’s final, drastic effort to break the cycle leaving an aftertaste of hopelessness. Though they do little more than grunt and shriek, Liu and Pei manage to be empathetic and, ultimately, quite heartbreaking.
Visually and technically, Ko owes a debt to the J-horror wave of the 1990s (Ring in particular), but he’s built a suitably grim palette for MONSTERS, with Chou Yi-Hsien’s (Love Off the Cuff) claustrophobic images and Pao Cheng-Hsun and Huang Mei-Cing’s splattery special effects serving the story perfectly.
Production company: Star Ritz International Entertainment
Cast: Deng Yu-Kai, Kent Tsai, Lai Jun-Cheng, Tao Bo-Meng, Carolyn Chen, Eugenie Liu, Lin Pei-Hsin
Director-screenwriter: Giddens Ko
Producers: Angie Chan, Giddens Ko
Executive producer: Molly Fang
Director of photography: Chou Yi-Hsien
Production designer: Oyster Liao
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Li Nien-Hsiu
Music: Chris Hou
Casting: Jill Hu
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
World sales: Sanling Chang