Director: Doze Niu
Cast: Ethan Juan, Mark Chao, Ma Ju-Lung, Rhydian Vaughan
RunTime: 2 hrs 21 mins
Released By: Encore Films & Golden Village Pictures
Rating: NC-16 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)
Opening Day: 15 April 2010
Starring the top two male idols in Taiwan today, Ethan Ruan and Mark Zhao, “Monga” is Taiwan’s blockbuster of the year which tells the story of five boys from the historical district of Monga in Taipei, who join a gang because they were tired of being bullied around.
As the young men enjoy their newfound status as gangsters in Monga, they have no idea that other gangs have also set their eyes on this prosperous area. Under the guidance of a veteran gangster, the youngsters are taught the heritage created by the founders of the borough of Monga. He has no idea, however, of a storm brewing that will soon break every hint of order in town, and remove the last remaining grandeur of the Old Town Monga…
Taiwan's famed Wanhua District (or Bangka to the locals) forms the backdrop of Doze Niu's colourful and hugely entertaining gangster flick, "Monga". Taipei City's oldest district, and home to historic sites such as Snake Alley and Longshan Temple, the Wanhua district was before its cleanup in the '90s divided by rule of the local gangs and a hotbed of crime and prostitution. Against this lively setting, Doze Niu tells the coming-of-age story of five adolescents turned blood brothers who call themselves the "Prince Gang".
The premise would probably sound familiar to local audiences- Royston Tan's and Boi Kwang's respective directorial debuts "15" and "The Days" were also such coming-of-age hoodlum yarns- and indeed, "Monga's" story and its themes of brotherhood and betrayal doesn't stray too far from what you would expect. Despite its apparent lack of originality, Doze Niu's tale still feels fresh and engaging throughout thanks to a very strong native flavour.
Niu infuses his story with a distinct retro nostalgia of '80s Taipei- from the gaudy neon lights to the bustling night street markets and the back-alley businesses. This was a time when joining or forming your own gang was a way of life for young men, a lifestyle that lured high school kids from their schools to the streets with its dual appeal of friendship and power. The first half of the film in particular taps on this allure, covering the initiation of new transfer student Mosquito (Mark Chao) at school into the Temple Front gang after he is bullied by rival punk gangster Dog Boy over a roast chicken leg in his lunchbox.
Led by Dragon (Rhydian Vaughn), the Temple Front gang is made up of three other members- the boyishly handsome and charismatic Monk (Ethan Juan), the timid butcher's son A-po and the brutish fighter Monkey. In his new companions, Mosquito finds the friendship he has never had and the father figure in veteran gang boss Geta (Ma Ju-Long) perennially absent from his life. Through his newfound company, he also finds a romantic interest in a prostitute whom he also seeks solace in. Their relationship is especially sweet and tender, played out to the tune of Air Supply's classic '80s romantic ballad "Making Love Out of Nothing at All".
Right from the beginning, director Doze Niu injects a lively exuberance into the film, aided by Taiwan-based American cinematographer Jake Pollock's (Yang Yang, The Message) brilliant lensing and some snappy editing by Niu, co-scripter Tseng Li-ting and Lin Yung-yi. One of the most efficiently executed sequences of the film is Niu's introduction to all five members of the Temple Front gang- Pollock's camera pans and weaves around the various characters in one continuous take where they battle a rival gang, intercut superbly with succinct backgrounds of each one of the Temple Gang members. Niu and Tseng's script also proves sharp and witty, and those who understand Hokkien will get a kick out of the authentically coarse and vulgar dialogue.
The film shifts to a more sombre tone in the second half, as the cheerful insouciance of adolescence is replaced by the weightiness of young adulthood. Niu hints at the times changing, the influx of the Mainlanders headed by Grey Wolf (Niu himself) threatening the old order established by Geta and his fellow sworn brother Masa. These circumstances will divide the quintet- a few will rise to the challenge, some others will struggle to find their way, while one of them will stumble. Through these alliances and betrayals, Niu's tale finds a larger significance beyond the ample posturing, fisticuffs and knife fights of the earlier half, especially against Mosquito's earlier mantra- "What is meaning? I only know brotherhood".
As these characters struggle to define their brotherhood and to find meaning in all the bloodshed and backstabbing, "Monga" at once becomes poignant and surprisingly affecting, aided no less by solid performances from both Mark Chao and Ethan Juan. Niu has cast his film well and even the supporting characters inhabit their roles with bravado. The vivid characters, combined with Niu's sharp eye for authenticity, bring to life an otherwise conventional story- but told with much verve and vigour. Indeed, "Monga" is one of the most enjoyable Taiwanese films to grace our screens in recent years- don't miss it!
(This is an enormously entertaining coming-of-age gangster flick unique for its strong colourful local flavour)
Review by Gabriel Chong