On cycles of abuse, moral cowardice, derelict authority figures ... and, yes, monsters
Mon Mon Mon Monsters Shudder
Director: Giddens Ko
Screenplay: Giddens Ko
Starring: Yu-Kai Teng, Kent Tsai Fan-Hsi, Bonnie Liang, Pei-hsin Lin, Eugenie Liu, James Lai, Meng Tao and Carolyn Chen
Not rated / 1 hour, 53 minutes / 2.35:1
Available on Shudder
(out of four)
Amazing what you'll do just to get the target off your back. The heinous things you're capable of doing just to keep those heinous things from happening to you. In the reverse pyramid scheme of bullying, there's always another victim to take your place at the bottom, so long as you're willing to do the finding. Maybe the initiation, too.
In Giddens Ko's Mon Mon Mon Monsters, this cycle of abuse finds little resistance - taking root within the ungoverned tribal enclaves of high-school society, being reinforced in the very classrooms tasked with preventing it, and finally festering into genuine terror, free of all surveillance, in a derelict apartment on the other side of town. Apathy is its corruptive support system - and when that apathy is no longer possible, it transforms into more direct complicity. When Shu-wei (Yu-Kai Teng) - his meekness and academic inclinations making him a perpetual target for abuse - is falsely accused of a classroom scam and then later attacked by its actual perpetrators, the teacher Ms. Lee (Carolyn Chen) has the opportunity to do something about it, and the proof to make it stick. Instead, she offers a warped version of compromise: Everyone - the innocent Shu-wei and the gang of tormentors who got him into this mess - gets punished, a decision she laces with a piece of advice that will be Shu-wei's moral undoing: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Instead of fighting back against your bullies, just become one of them.
The road to torture is paved with the good intentions of enforced community service. Led by the ringleader Ren-hao (Kent Tsai Fan-Hsi), the gang - including his popular girlfriend Si-hua (Bonnie Liang) and Shu-wei, the official outcast - takes on the assignment of feeding the elderly in a poor, largely abandoned housing complex. Needless to say, the malevolently mischievous Ren-hao and his spinelessly mean-spirited disciples don't take this duty seriously. Their not-so-innocent hijinks eventually lead them to the discovery of a pair of pale, fanged, sunlight-averse monsters living in secret in the dark corners of the building.
In the younger of the two (played by Pei-hsin Lin), the bullies have their new, prized plaything. An especially valuable one, too, given that no one is around to stop them, or judge them. Nor would they be inclined to do so anyway. No one, that is, except the creature's older sister (Eugenie Liu), who avoided capture and is desperate to rescue her sister and only companion.
Their best chance would presumably be Shu-wei ... but in the circumstances, he proves as feckless as Ms. Lee, and ultimately guiltier. If only because he quickly realizes that, with this monster now chained up in their possession, he's more or less out of the woods. No one's picking on him anymore - he's even part of the club. Provided he joins in as they maim, mutilate and taunt the poor helpless thing. Better it than me.
The film takes courage seriously specifically by presenting us with characters who fail to show any. Neither the previously tormented kid nor any official authority figures do anything to thwart Ren-hao's nastiest intentions (the best they can do is ignore it). And everyone else just falls in line behind him, more than willing to be a part of the mob. If for no other reason than the alternative is to be a part of nothing (and hence, as Shu-wei well knows, a target).
Ren-hao is remorseless and cheerfully cruel from the jump, and his capacity for real violence is established early. But the insidiousness of a leader that sadistic is in the way said sadism becomes institutionalized, participation being as much a survival mechanism as anything else. When they first capture the monster and begin their campaign of terror, Si-hua is initially a complicit but passive observer; she watches with a sort of bemused revulsion, as if her boyfriend is simply doing the sort of gross or immature or reckless thing that teen boys so often do. The casualness of it is a disquieting anesthetic. Sooner than later, Si-hua is a more active participant. And as for Shu-wei, he doesn't get to cling to his initial presumption of innocence for very long. He has a choice - to play along or not to play along, to torture the childlike creature or not - and he chooses poorly.
That Ko has his reluctant antihero make this decision and then live with it - once he's in he's in - is one of his wisest strokes, suggesting an inherent human corruptibility even in light of a clear-eyed moral conscience. Shu-wei's near-immediate downfall is an act of self-preservation rather than malice, but the film knows the distinction doesn't matter.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters (or perhaps I should be using the stylized rendering of mon mon mon MONSTERS) forges an increasingly insular environment for this band of bullies, for whom it becomes a second home, a secret hideout with a kidnapped centerpiece. The creature becomes not just a feature of the hideout but its central component; her presence, and the unbridled freedom with which they torture her, is a galvanizing force. There are similarities to films like The Beach or High-Rise or Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures in the way their secret, tight-knit group creates a self-reinforcing bubble around them in which behavioral standards are rewritten if not discarded altogether. There is the sense that they're collectively rejecting moral culpability; this is not a creature to be considered on moral terms, but a rabid animal to which they can do what they like without consequence. Surely there's a future serial killer in this bunch.
Ko furthers the characters' deliberate psychological detachment by having them appear, in various scenes, in disguises and makeup - masks and costume and war paint, as if this is all an elaborate performance at a faraway summer camp. In both that context and the movie's own, Teng's lead performance is the most complex, his face a perpetual wince stuck between timid fear and reluctant inhumanity, interrupted occasionally by a carefree smile when he finds himself enjoying the camaraderie more than he knows he should. Ko makes sure we feel those painful tensions, too, evoking the adrenaline of both the kids' aggression and the monster's panicked terror.
Whatever Monsters is trying to demonstrate about human nature is self-evident - and becomes so within the first 20 minutes - but Ko's ability to channel the competing tensions of rage and fear give the whole film a nervy, uncertain buzz. Of course, this mob-like state of being that sets in - each participant assuaging the guilt of the next - is entirely reliant on the helplessness of the victim. Easy for Ren-hao and his cohorts to take out their violence on a caged animal ... especially when they're unaware that animal has a sister. Wait'll they get a load of her.