Monga (2010) 艋舺

Country: Taiwan
Language: Taiwanese (Hokkien), Mandarin
Director: Doze Niu
Running Time: 140 minutes
Starring: Mark Chao, Ethan Ruan, Rhydian Vaughan, Huang Teng-hui

Theme: Crime/Gangsterism

Ratings: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
2010 Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
2010 Taipei Film Festival
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival
2010 Tokyo International Film Festival
2010 Stockholm International Film Festival

2010 Golden Horse Awards: Best Actor (Ethan Ruan) / Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year (Lee Lieh, producer) / Best Sound Effects
2010 Taipei Film Festival: Best Art Direction
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival: Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Award
2010 Stockholm International Film Festival: Telia Film Award

2010 Golden Horse Awards: Best Original Film Score / Best Art Direction / Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year (Doze Niu)
2010 Taipei Film Festival: Best Actor (Mark Chao, Ethan Ruan) / The Grand Prize
2010 Tokyo International Film Festival: Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film Award [lost to Israel’s Intimate Grammar by Nir Bergman]

  • Selected as Taiwan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2011 Academy Awards.

There is without doubt a revival of Taiwanese commercial mainstream cinema that began with Cape No. 7 (2008) that managed to draw dwindling theatre audiences back to the cinemas for a local production. This upward trend is further bolstered with Monga (2010), a gangster film set in 1980s Taipei within Monga in the Wanhua District, an area akin to the seedy red light district of Geylang in Singapore with its chain of brothels and gang affiliations within the area. The key to this revival, I believe, lies in the nationalistic sentiments towards modern Taiwan, unquestionably fuelled by Mainland Chinese sentiments that the island once known as Formosa and that is formally named the Republic of China should fall under their control, which the fiercely-independent Taiwanese frown upon. Both movies are historical and somewhat indulges in the rich cultural heritage of Taiwan in their respective portrayals, whilst being mainstream fare that cast big names as their leading protagonists. Cape No. 7 had popular singers Van Fan and Rachel Liang while Monga has popular teen idols Ethan Ruan and Mark Chao who definitely played a major role in drawing crowds to the theatres. This formula can probably be referenced by dwindling national cinemas around the world. Monga, essentially isn’t exactly cookie-cutter mainstream fare with its dark and broody ongoing narrative.

Monga may be mainstream fare, but it doesn’t alienate alternative audiences as well – Director Doze Niu (鈕承澤) in his sophomore feature film directorial effort since the critically-acclaimed low-budget “What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?” (2007) that clinched a FIPRESCI Prize, and which told a story about a director attempting to canvass money so as to produce a mockumentary film. Casting upcoming actor Rhydian Vaughan from Winds of September (2008) which made it to Toronto International Film Festival was also wise. As a result, Monga cuts greater swarthe across the film festival circuit, being an official selection under the Panorama section of Berlin International Film Festival this year, whilst also playing in Hawaii, Tokyo and Stockholm. Not bad at all for an otherwise commercial movie that eventually opened during the Lunar New Year period in Taiwan, edging out the worldwide hit Avatar in its opening week.

Doze Niu straddles the fine line between criticizing the gang lifestyle and unnecessarily sensationalizing it in this movie, and as I watch the disquieting story unfold there is a sense of paramount importance of the environment plays in adding to the realism of the conventional story, which sets the movie apart in spite of its stereotypical story arc. Setting the story elsewhere would simply do injustice to the film. The sharply entertaining film is divided chiefly into three acts – that of initiation of Mosquito into the gang, the everyday processes the gang go through and lastly that of Monk’s betrayal, with the tone that is cast very different within these three acts. The first one is also the most engaging, as the greenhorn gangster learns the ropes of what it takes to be a gang member with the tone of black comedic wit.

A key scene occurs when the gang members play truant, sitting on the school fence pondering what to do for the day. Monk with his outstretched hand inviting Mosquito to join them (0:13:58), and  the clasp of the hand as he helps Mosquito up the wall (0:14:01). The camera lingers on the gaze between the two characters as they sit on the wall (0:14:04) in spite of the establishing lower-up shot that captures the other gang members. This sets the stone for the important relationship as it unfolds throughout the movie. Further, Mosquito’s seemingly innocuous action of looking back into the school ground as he jumps up the wall is a lasting symbolism of him bidding the old life farewell. And this key scene is recaptured in the final moments of the film. But the way the film has transcended conveys a melancholic feel to this flashback.

Two metaphors are prevalent throughout the whole film. They are the yo-yo which Monk gave to Mosquito which the latter can be seen holding and playing with throughout most of the film as an indication of the status of their friendship, which sometimes seem to harbor subtle homosexual connotations in terms of how close the characters are (and as testament to that the actors Mark Chao and Ethan Ruan kissed whilst on a local variety show to promote the film). Also, the Japanese Sakura flower bloom as something that Mosquito wants to personally witness at least once in his life, with his (apparently) late father in a postcard, pasted in Mosquito’s wardrobe, that is set against the flower bloom. This is given absolute significance in the final scene as the wounded Mosquito lies on the ground, while Monk was shot by the other gang members, his blood spatter blending into the sakura (2:12:51).

The fight scenes are beautifully shot and framed, sometimes in many lengthy shots interspersed with sweeping close-ups that capture the realism of the blows and punches, cast against slow motion techniques and a soft instrumental accompaniment in what really is Mosquito’s coming-of-age tale. A young prostitute bearing a birthmark on her face that she desperately tries to hide from her clients was interweaved into the story as a separate narrative, Mosquito and herself teaching each other about the value of tenderness and love, with Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing at All providing the ideal soundtrack to the scene.

But the resounding question remains: what next for Taiwanese cinema? How will it build on this ongoing momentum created by Cape No. 7 and Monga in creating more cinematic masterpieces that can withstand international competition, yet straddling the fine lines of arthouse and commercialism? Even Jay Chou’s Secret (2007) was a relatively beautiful work that was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2008. Will this eventually spark of another wave of filmmakers who will build on the legacy left by the Taiwanese New Wave filmmakers of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in the 1980s which captured realistic, down-to-earth portrayals of Taiwanese life in stylistic treatments akin to the Italian neorealism movement? Only time will tell.


2 Responses to Monga (2010) 艋舺

  1. Jasmine says:

    Hello Walter!

    Your blog entries are really detailed!

    I am surprised that you did not talk about the long take of this particular scene where the guys were attacked by another rival gang. To me, when I watched that scene, I was reminded of the long take in Oldboy where the protagonist had to fight a whole group of people along the narrow corridor. Do you think there are similarities between the two shots other than the both of them being long takes? Why do you think the directors chose to employ long takes in such scenes?

    All the best for your exams!

  2. walter.sim says:

    Hello Jasmine!

    Thanks for your compliment! 🙂

    Anyway the main reason I did not talk about the long take of the fighting scenes is simply because, well, the concept of the “long take” is one that I still find very hard to observe in films at first glance. It is an insensitivity on my part that I’m trying to resolve. But yes, after reading your comment I did try to revisit the scene, and it is indeed reminiscent of the long take in Oldboy. I cannot say for sure, but I guess the similarities lie in the intent of the shot? Cinematic time and real time blends in such scenes, and thus such long takes are supposed to add to the realism and cinematic visual effect of the scene. And the act of fighting, being a bloody/visual affair, would thus add onto the discomfort experienced by the audience due to its realism. There are no cutaways to overlay a plausible lapse of time, for instance.

    All the best to yours too!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: