Sunday, May 9, 2010

Monga (film review)

People go to pray, some in the rain,
one wet day in 2007 at the Lungshan Temple
in Taipei's Wanhua (aka Monga) district

Monga (Taiwan, 2010)
- Doze Niu Cheng Tse, director
- Starring Ethan Ruan, Mark Chao, Ma Ju Lung, Rhydian Vaughan, Alice Ke, Doze Niu Cheng Tse, etc.

Some years ago, I watched Hou Hsiao Hsien's The Boys from Fengkuei (Taiwan, 1983) with my mother. At the conclusion of our viewing, she turned to me and said she had liked the coming-of-age film but then added with a sigh that she wished the young men at the center of the movie had been more handsome.

Viewing this involving 141 minute long work directed by one of those then young men who had starred in that decades earlier Hou Hsiao Hsien movie, I got to wondering if at least one person had said something similar to him in the intervening years. Because even while he does appear (in a small but significant role) in this offering which he also co-scripted and -produced, the young thespians at the heart of it sure are very good looking (as well as mesmerizingly charismatic and obviously no slouches in the acting department)!

As much a tale about friendship and growing up as well as that of gangsters, Monga (which takes its title from the old Taipei business district where much of its action takes place) starts off telling the tale of a young man (Mark Chao) who grew up without a father and, until late in his school life, without friends. Having lived an unsettled life with his single parent mother, he had attended too many schools at which he had been picked on and bullied as new boys are apt to be.

But just when it seemed like the cycle would get repeated at what would turn out to be his last school, four schoolmates intervened and invited him into their close brotherhood. Grateful for their extended hand of friendship, he accepts -- and thereby also enters the gangster fraternity that rules the Monga district because, among other things, it turns out that one of his new friends (Rhydian Vaughan -- who, for the record, is Eurasian and looks it but is completely fluent in both Mandarin and Taiwanese) is the son and heir to the Monga's reigning gangster chief (Ma Ju Lung).

While all of the above mentioned actors acquit themselves well in their meaty roles, the truth of the matter is that once and whenever the top-billed Ethan Ruan is in the picture, it's hard to keep one's eyes off him. His close-cropped head is an immediate visual contrast to the more era-specific hairstyles of others in this movie that's set in the mid 1980s (and thereby also includes such as a clunky Sony Walkman, garish clothing and discos in the overall set up). But what truly sets him apart is a sense that there's this fire within that's slowly burning but intense and could just erupt out from him and set the whole world ablaze -- maybe in a good but more likely bad way -- some day.

Still, I'd not go so far as to say that he steals the show from everybody though because the sense is that he is a very giving actor and Monga is really an ensemble show. All this is actually very much to the film's credit -- because whenever people have to choose sides, the choices are shown to not be made easily and in ways that makes the audience members see how many, if not all, of the sides actually do have their attractions.

My rating for this film: 8.5


Anonymous said...

Sounds good! I'll keep an eye out for it.

BTW, nice to see a picture of Longshan Temple. I had a very memorable experience there when I was it Taiwan several years ago. Actually, there were a lot of great temples in Taiwan, many of which I just chanced upon while wandering the streets.

ewaffle said...

Handsome, charismatic and talented young actors on both sides of the divide making the choices offered in "Monga" ambiguous since seductive bad guys are almost always more attractive than good guys. Not only an excellent way to show how difficult such ethical/moral choices can be but also a possible marker for the way the director wants the audience to look at it. I agree with duriandave, will try to get it.

That is a lovely picture of Longshan Temple. We thought the small stand for fruit and vegatables in front of the temple might be so that worshippers can buy gifts for the gods inside.

One can spend a long time just looking at the details on the temple roofs, particularly the dragons on the peaks--some green or blue. And on the far right, somehow blending in or at least not jarring at all, is a small, very modern addition, a loudspeaker for a PA system for announcements to the faithful.

Samson said...

Awesome! Great to see commercial Taiwanese films making such a big comeback over the past couple of years.

YTSL said...

Hi duriandave --

Definitely would recommend "Monga" -- and have to say that it actually makes me want to go back to Taipei and check out the Monga district more closely than I did on my one visit to Taiwan's capital city.

Hi ewaffle --

I love how when you summarise my words and sentiments, you improve them. :)

Re my Longshan Temple photo: I think I need to point out that it's actually of the inner courtyard of the temple. So that long table isn't a stand where worshippers can buy gifts for the gods but, instead, a table on which to place their offerings.

Also, I think what you mistook for a PA system is actually part of a floodlights system. OTOH, definitely agree with you that one can spend a long time just looking at the details on the temple roofs. :)

Hi Samson --

I'm not sure I'd call the comeback big but yeah, it's nice and fun to see Taiwanese filmmakers churning out more than just challenging art house films. :)

Brian said...

Wow, 2 film reviews almost in a row! Nice to see you getting back to your internet roots from time to time!

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

And I have to say it's nice to see my reviews attracting positive comments! :)