Not all monsters have pointy teeth and a taste for human flesh.
Movies about bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are funny (Mean Girls), some are dramatic (Bully), and some — usually the best — are cathartic (My Bodyguard, Three O’Clock High). The new Taiwanese film, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, is all of those things, but it’s also so much more.
Shu-wei (Yu-kai Teng) dreads the school day for one simple reason — well, three reasons — consisting of class bully Ren-hao (Kent Tsai) and his two cohorts. The trio make his life miserable on a regular basis, but when their latest prank blows up in their faces the bullies are paired with Shu-wei for some community service. It’s on one of these assignments that the four teens come across a girl-like creature (Lin Pei-hsin) we’ve previously witnessed feasting on the flesh of a homeless person. They take her to a remote locale, tie her up, and over the next several days take turns torturing her.
The creature’s clearly in pain, but Shu-wei joins in after discovering that she’s essentially taken his place in the chain of sadism. If he rescues her he’ll go back to being a punching bag, but if he simply plays along he gets to have “friends” and avoid being hurt himself. Luckily for the monster she has someone else in her corner — her older sister (Eugenie Liu), who’s every bit as carnivorous and notably stronger, is on the hunt for her sibling and the humans who’ve taken her.
Writer/director Giddens Ko is a successful novelist in his homeland of Taiwan, and Mon Mon Mon Monsters is his second feature film based on one of his own books. His first (and only other directorial effort) is 2011’s sweetly humorous You Are the Apple of My Eye, but while this film shares the high school setting it’s interested in far darker, meaner, and violent themes. The fact that it hits those bloody, nihilistic, and painfully honest beats while also being incredibly funny is something of a minor miracle.
Ko finds physical comedy and situational humor between the teens, the monsters, and the indifferent/unaware adults. The laughs work as a release of sorts, whether before, after, or even during scenes of suffering and pain, and they ease the tension at various moments throughout the film. It’s enough to leave viewers uncertain and on edge in regard to the film’s overall tone, but that wavering tone settles toward darkness in its back half.
While the film opens with the sisterly creatures eating a man it’s later where the older of the pair cuts loose and rips flesh with abandon. There’s a school bus-set scene here that surpasses Sion Sono’s brilliant Tag in its bloodletting, and she’s only getting started. They’re monsters, obviously, and there’s no effort to temper their murderous ways, but Ko’s affection very clearly aligns with the likes of Clive Barker whose fiction frequently concludes that no matter how monstrous a creature might be humans are always far, far worse.
It’s there where Ko and his film make their most honest and disturbing observation. The empathetic among us will identify immediately with Shu-wei as he’s abused by classmates and ignored by adults, and our inclination is to root for him against the bullies. It’s only natural, but Ko knows another truth — given the opportunity, the bullied and downtrodden will sometimes gladly become bullies and oppressors themselves. It’s a bitter pill, and it’s one Shu-wei soon finds himself choking on.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters works as pure entertainment with laughs and gore aplenty, but its lasting power — the themes that fuel it towards a beautiful gut-punch of an ending — is in its recognition of the monsters within us all. They’re in there, waiting patiently to reveal themselves, and it’s ultimately our choice alone to keep them secured or to set them free.
Our review of Mon Mon Mon Monsters originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2017.