The 2017 Taiwanese horror film "Mon Mon Mon Monsters" from writer/director Giddens Ko is billed and promoted as a horror-comedy, but the themes explored throughout the film are no laughing matter.
The plot centers on Lin Shu-wei (Deng Yu-kai), a teen student and a victim of vicious and constant bullying. When Lin and his tormentors are assigned to school-mandated community service, they stumble upon two ferocious and bloodthirsty female creatures. The teens manage to capture the younger of the feral creatures (Lin Pei-hsin), and Lin's tormentors quickly display their own inner monsters, viciously and violently torturing the captured creature for days on end, and with constant peer pressure being heaped onto Lin's shoulders, he runs a very real risk of becoming the very thing he despises. All the while, the teens are unaware that the older creature (Eugenie Liu) is cutting a bloody swath across the city in a desperate search for its missing sister.
The film opens and we are immediately introduced to our two monstrous sisters as they attack and chow down on a homeless man. Despite the extreme gore on display, this is a disturbingly sweet and endearing scene as they generously share the man's organs with one another. The following scene sees these feral sisters seek shelter in an alleyway as the sun rises, crawling into each of their own cardboard boxes, and without words, bid each other sweet dreams, expressing a deep love and dependence on one another. This opening lets us know right away that despite their monstrous appearance, actions, and demeanor, they will actually be the sympathetic figures of the movie. In the annals of monster movies, the theme of mankind being the real monsters of the story is hardly a new one, but we're rarely clued into that message this early in the story, and director Giddens Ko makes zero effort to bury that lead.
We're then introduced to Lin's character who is relentlessly bullied from our first glimpse of him, an abuse that never really seems to let up until the film's final moments. I was something of a geek growing up, so being bullied is not unfamiliar to me, but even so, the bullying in this movie at first seemed unusually vicious, far-fetched and exaggerated. That is until I realized the one differentiating factor between Lin's situation and my own high-school experiences. Smartphones and social media. This film really does hammer home the stark reality of how bullying has evolved to truly horrific levels in the wake of advanced technology and social media. A point that is made more than once throughout the course of the film, such as when Lin bears witness to the abuse his bullies reign down on the elderly citizens they are meant to be caring for as part of their community service. Ko really makes sure to stress the point that these kids are absolute sociopaths, which, just in case it wasn't already clear, becomes undeniable as we later see them joyously torture the captured creature. The film makes no effort to shy away from showing the depths of their depravity.
In a way, several of these uncomfortable torture sequences couldn't help but remind me of a messed up Asian vampire version of Brian De Palma's heart-wrenching 1989 Viet Nam war drama "Casualties of War" (minus the sexual assaults). Point being, we really do come to feel genuine empathy for the creatures and crave the eventual vengeance which is sure to be subjected on these evil kids.
And they really are one-dimensionally evil, which brings me to what I believe is one of the more fascinating aspects of the film. With the exception of Lin and one other minor character, every single human character in this movie appears to be an irredeemable sociopath. One dimensional villains whose only source of joy is the misery of others. Even their religious teacher is a bully in her own way, getting even with troublesome students through cruel emotional manipulation. In other circumstances, such one-dimensional antagonists could be seen as a negative aspect of a film. But given the themes at play here, it gives the world Lin exists in a surreal quality. We're seeing the world through the eyes of someone who is constantly bullied and harassed. From the point of view of such a person, everyone is a threat. Everyone is out to get them. Nobody, not even teachers, can be trusted, and hardly anybody displays anything even remotely resembling redeeming qualities. This motif is made even clearer by the lack of any parental figures in Lin's life. His parents never make an appearance in this story and are only briefly mentioned once. Enforcing the sense of isolation the bullied feel, where parents or anyone who could potentially lend a helping hand seem to exist on a completely separate plane of existence.
On a technical level, Mon Mon Mon Monsters is a treat to the eyes of any fan of creature features. The practical make-up effects and stunts make our creatures sufficiently terrifying, creepy, and imposing, but not so much as to hide the actors' natural expressions and performances, which allows us to continue connecting with them on a human level despite their monstrous appearances.
However, this movie is not without its downsides. A subplot which finds Lin investigating missing person reports for a clue as to the captive creature's identity and origin never ends up informing the overall plot or themes in any significant way, and comes off as an unnecessary time filler rather than a relevant plot point. Speaking of the film's themes, we spend too much time exploring those themes with little payoff.
The film clocks in at 112 minutes and the first two-thirds of that are spent successfully building our hatred for the film's antagonists as we witness them terrorize both Lin and the captured creature in unspeakable ways. By the time the third act rolls around, not only have the creatures earned their vengeance tenfold but so has the audience. We've just sat through a little over an hour of inhuman brutality, and we deserve to see the villains get their comeuppance. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that vengeance does eventually come rolling around, but when it does, most of it happens out of frame or we see the aftermath of it. That doesn't cut it. If the entire film had been selective on how much gore is shown, that would be one thing, but after spending so much time detailing the depths of these antagonists' viciousness, we've earned our right to see them get theirs on a truly satisfying and visceral level.
But don't let me leave you with the impression that this ruins the movie in any way. The themes of bullying, and the way in which Giddens Ko shows us a slightly distorted world from the tormented point of view of a heavily bullied teenager makes it a film that is intriguing and satisfying on an intellectual level, if not a visceral one. The movingly complex "sisters" succeed at keeping us emotionally invested. Credit must also be given to a brave and quite frankly, ballsy conclusion to the story. A conclusion that isn't afraid to challenge the audience's emotions, and accentuates the dangers of bullying taken to the extreme.
In summary, despite a minor unnecessary subplot, and a lot of visceral buildup with little payoff in kind, writer/director Giddens Ko delivered a (mostly) well executed, socially conscious, and engaging monster movie.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters is currently streaming on Shudder.
7.5 / 10