The Taipei district of Monga is a mess of noise, of temples crowded by neon-illuminated shopfronts, of shabby snack bars, and the red glow of brothels. It’s a fitting metaphor for Monga the film, a bubbling hot pot of teen movie, mafia flick, romance, kung fu movie and melodrama.
Monga charts the career of Mosquito, an outsider who has always been picked on by classmates. But as everyone knows, you can push a man only so far, and for Mosquito the last straw is when the class bully steals his fried chicken. He takes it back, but later finds a group of thugs standing in wait for him outside the school gates. Eventually encircled by the gang, he surprisingly gives as good as he gets, impressing a local group of hoodlums with his innovative brawling prowess. They intervene to solve his bullying situation and from that point on, he will be the fifth member of their gang ‘cos it takes five fingers to make a fist.’
This is Mosquito’s introduction to the heidao 黑道 (black way), the name in Chinese for organised crime. The chapter he joins has its own patch near the temple and they spend their days getting into scraps with other gangs, sleeping with prostitutes and generally hanging around in loose fitting shirts. Of course, nothing lasts forever, and soon the realities of heidao life begin to bite. The new generation is getting older, the younger generation is finding its teeth, and there’s new interest in Monga from Mainland Chinese gangs. The blood brothers’ oaths, their yiqi 義氣 loyalty, will all be tested.
In covering the different periods of Mosquito’s life, from school boy to fully-fledged gangster, Monga shoots for very different tones. The school days chapter is portrayed with the sort of awkward comedy seen in late 90s American teen movies, complete with soft rock soundtrack. The boys chat about their dreams in soft focus like members of a boy band on tour. Their street brawls, not exactly played for laughs, still have a sort of innocence about them.
the boys chat about their dreams in soft focus like members of a boy band on tour
Later when the boys enter adulthood, explicitly stated on a title card, the tone becomes far more serious and the violence becomes nastier. Even in this section, though, there are a lot of stories to tell and each one carries its own style. From the classic kung fu training section up in the mountains to an unlikely romance with a prostitute back in the city, the film felt at times like a smorgasbord of cinema, with filmic conventions picked up and dropped at the director’s whim. An example of this is the Guy Richie-style rapid editing we see at the beginning of the film, which we never really see again.
The film’s strength for me is its rootedness in the Monga district. The way that temple culture closely mingles with the heidao life is compelling and the tensions between rival gangs, different languages and different generations is evocatively told.
Yet the film feels overly-long, not helped by the mix of styles and tones. The thing that could have held it all together is a believable central character in whom we can invest. Unfortunately, actor Mark Chao doesn’t really deliver the goods here, particularly in the third act in which he gratingly bellows his theories about loyalty. I never really found him sympathetic or real as a character, not helped by the fact that in early scenes this tall muscular student with film-star looks seems an unlikely victim of bullying.
As an introduction to an interesting district of Taipei and a particular aspect of Taiwan society, Monga is definitely worth a watch. As a film, though, I feel it tries to do too much, in too many different ways, to deliver the gut punch it wants to.
- Runtime: 141 mins
- Director: Doze Niu
- Language: Mandarin/Taiwanese
- Year of release: 2010