Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review – Monga

July 22, 2010

Monga – Taiwan, 2010

In almost every travel guide for Taiwan, there is a small section devoted to Longshan Temple, a large, rather impressive temple that according to Lonely Planet enshrines one hundred and sixty-six deities, the most important of which is Guanyin. Across from the temple, the streets are lined with street venders, and close by there is a night market commonly referred to as Snake Alley, where people can buy souvenirs, get a foot massage, and eat a serving of snake soup, if they are so inclined. When I tell my students that I have been in this area several times, they usually ask me if I’ve eaten snake (I haven’t) or what I thought of Longshan Temple. Inevitably, a concerned student will be sure to tell me not to go there at night, explaining that when the sun goes down, the area becomes a bit seedy. I’ve been there after dark, and while the area indeed has a different feel to it at that time, I’ve never had a problem there. Reputations are hard to shake, however.

Monga takes place in this area of Taipei in 1986, and the Wenhua District, as it is more commonly known, was quite different back then. In the film, the area is divided into two sections, and each section is run by its own boss. On one side, there’s Boss Geta. He is head of a group called the Temple Front. On the other side, there’s Boss Masa, who’s the leader of the Back Alley. Both of these men are Taiwanese, and while their foot soldiers may do battle from time to time, they are more likely to sit down to tea together to discuss important affairs, the most important of which has to do with “Mainlanders” trying to get in on the action. Exactly what this action is, is not clear. We see streets lined with prostitutes doing their best to lure customers in, yet this was legal at the time. A few characters talk about gambling, but there’s no reference to either boss running illegal gambling parlors. There’s also no mention of drugs or organized crime at all. I suppose this is because we are meant to like these characters, and perhaps we wouldn’t if we say all of the illegal activity they were involved in.

Monga is mainly about five high school students – Mosquito, Dragon Lee, Monk, A-Po, and Monkey - collectively known as the Prince Gang. In the film’s opening scenes, we see why it might be important to be part of a gang at this time, as schools abound with bullies who demand bribes for such things as using a stairwell to get to class. On his first day at a new school, Mosquito has to fend off six members of a gang after refusing to surrender part of his lunch to the class bully. His skill catches the attention of the Prince Gang, who ask him to join them and then offer him protection. To Mosquito, the gang represents a brotherhood, a collection of close friends, which he has never had before. The violence he witnesses and is asked to take part in after joining the gang brings tears to his eyes initially. The tears eventually go away, but Mosquito never quite understands why the violence is necessary in the first place. Perhaps that’s because it shouldn’t be.

Monga should work better than it does. That is doesn’t is the result of a rather uneven script. First, screenwriter Li-ting Tseng initially can’t decide whether he’s crafting a gangster film or a comedy, and so early in the film, we get an odd scene in which the Prince Gang bumps into average people while running away from a larger gang. The people they run into, including a man in a wheelchair and a man lying on the ground begging for spare change, then stop what they’re doing and join the chase. People run left, then right, then left again. The chased become the ones doing the chasing. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been done many times, from American comedies to Japanese cartoons. In addition, instead of focusing on how deeply the Prince Gang is involved in gang activity, screenwriter Li-ting Tseng shows us example after example of just how close the gang is. We see them training together, having a water fight together, playing basketball together, and to emphasize just how great each moment is, director Doze Niu slows them down for us, so that all of the smiles and laughter last even longer than they normally would. I get it - They’re good friends, and they have fun together. What else have you got?

Two other subplots are not given enough time to be convincing. The first has to do with Mosquito becoming involved with a prostitute, a bit of a cliché in a film of this genre. Their scenes may be sweet, but the two characters never completely seem in love. In order to do that, they have to talk, and more often, they listen to samples of Air Supply songs together. I suppose it’s a realistic way for them to escape from their daily lives, but it does not create a strong enough bond between the two characters. The second has to do with Mosquito beginning to think of Boss Geta as a father figure. This is an important development, for many of Mosquito’s actions in the second half of the film relate to it. Therefore, more is needed than just a dropped piece of shrimp and a karaoke duet to make it realistic. In addition, while the film’s final thirty minutes are meant to be surprising, most of the plot twists that occur during this time can be seen a mile away. Moreover, the Prince Gang’s tearful outbursts during this time seem more out of character than heartfelt, again the result of a problem with the script.

Monga does contain very good performances. Mark Chou makes a memorable acting debut in the role of Mosquito, and Ching-Tien Juan plays Monk with an intensity that is fascinating to watch. However, the film’s best performance belongs to Ju-Long Ma, who is especially good as Boss Geta. However, actors can only do so much, and when a script fails them, which is the case with Monga, their efforts and their energy are simply not enough. Monga had great potential; it just didn’t live up to it. (on DVD in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*Monga is in Min Nan and Mandarin with English subtitles.

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