What On Earth Have I Done Wrong was my introduction to Doze Niu's filmmaking world, and in that mockumentary he had lampooned politics and the media circus in Taiwan, while also giving an insight into the Taiwanese Film Industry. Well who would have known that he has now directed and co-wrote one of the hottest Taiwanese films to have come out of the island most recently, and honestly I am impressed by his sprawling effort which while sticking to some established formula, had plenty of heart of its own to make it incredibly energetic for its runtime, and unique.
Shot on location at the Wanhua District of Taipei (and undoubtedly will give it a boost in tourism numbers just like how Cape No. 7 did), scribes Tseng Li-ting and Doze Niu himself had weaved a tale of gangsters that's quite vivid and chilling to watch. Our exposure to cinematic gangsters in the East has of course been influenced by the Hong Kong triads portrayed in a manner which is stylishly brutal to the core, thanks to the films churned by Johnnie To and his Milkyway team, making such films an event well worth the anticipation and their respective hype. Closer to home, we have Royston Tan's 15, Boi Kwong's The Days and of course Kelvin Sng's upcoming feature The Gang, which looks back to Singapore 70s just as about the time where the local hard core gangsters got largely eradicated by the police force, so much so that contemporary impression of any local gangs, are the street corner ones.
Monga is set in the 1980s, and it's a tale of two halves, the first of which is strikingly similar to The Days, being in a school setting, and setting the scene with the recruitment of a newbie into the ranks of a group of street punks, who call themselves The Prince Gang. Narrated by main protagonist nicknamed Mosquito (Mark Chao), a teenager with no friends and often a target for bullies, he soon finds the enticement of belonging to a group who swears loyalty amongst their ranks, giving him a shot into the dark side through an initiation rite that involves roughing up one's enemy. Typical modus operandi employed to get a newbie down the slippery slope of gangsterism, where first you win his impression, respect and loyalty, then he fights for all his brothers.
But of course the Prince Gang is more than just a start up racket, with their de-facto leader Dragon Lee (Rhydian Vaughan) being the only son of Monga's Temple Front triad. We're soon introduced to the rest of Prince's crew, which includes the intelligent and brooding Monk (Ethan Ruan), the cowardly A-Po, and fighter Monkey. We're told of the team's dynamics and how Mosquito soon finds himself a loyal member of the group, who spend most of their time playing truant to while away at their hideout, or to visit prostitutes, where Mosquito soon falls for a hooker with a large facial birthmark (Ko Chia Yen), beginning a romantic subplot that's tender enough not to get in the way of the main narrative.
The first half of the film puts the spotlight on the shenanigans of this youthful group as they go around squandering their lives away from school, and into fights. Unlike Crows Zero where schoolboys trounce each other with far out powers, the fights here is almost balletic in delivery, and serves as quite the highlight, especially with their kill or be killed mantra. Like a cautionary tale, it tells of how impressionable teenagers can be especially when showed with much needed attention and gifts, which comes with the price-tag of eternal loyalty.
Loyalty though seems like a dirty word however, especially when there's always that temptation and rationale of serving self-interest first, or when it boils down to a family matter, where real kin blood runs thicker than water or even brotherhood. It's a walkthrough the Monga ecosystem where we learn of the various turfs set, and how scary the gangsters with real powers can be, being seemingly everyday persons on the streets, and quite nonchalant about their position as gangster chiefs, though coming complete with uncouth, vulgar vocabulary to betray their calm business fronts.
Just as we're getting comfortable and chummy with the Prince Gang, the narrative turns on its head as it enters a darker phase in the run up to the finale, with a boot camp for martial arts training in various Chinese weapons being the middle point where boys are trained to become men of war. Everything becomes more serious as Prince Gang unfortunately gets woken up to inevitable reality, and while faced with a potential internal strife, things don't look all too sunny at Monga with the advent of the Mainland Chinese gangsters who are salivating at a hostile takeover.
It is here that Doze Niu himself comes to the forefront as Crazy Wolf from the Mainland, up against the established Monga powers such as Boss Geta played by Ma Ju Lung, both actors putting up powerful, riveting veteran performances in contrast to the teen idols Ethan Juan and Mark Chao who do hold their own, but certainly the gulf in charisma is obvious. The latter half becomes a commentary on the fear of change, of being inside a comfort zone, that any threat to change the status quo is a declaration of an all out, no holds barred war. It's almost akin to any situation where the incumbent almost always feel threatened by change, and to put it into our own topical context, how we rationalize our fears toward new immigrants into our land who inevitably shake up what we hold dear, and some having total disregard to what has preceded, but to want to stamp their own brand of the way things get done.
It is this half that examines what loyalty really means, whether lip service or something to be carried out with honour, and the narrative spins into a hydra of subplots, all of which will get addressed as the film races toward the end with plenty of urgency and closure. You'll be kept glued to the screen for the most parts of its extended narrative which encompassed plenty of themes and ideas, and the characterization here will definitely make you feel something for all the characters, making you care whether they live through their ordeal, or not, which is telling of the strength of the story and storytellers involved. And I'll say it again, the fight scenes here are stylishly filmed, complete with blood and gore and with fluidity (love those one take, sweeping camera motion), even though we have to suffer the unceremonious censor scissors every now and then for this NC-16 rated film.
To the local audience, you may already be familiar with gangster flicks such as The Days from last year. Monga though, makes that look like child's play, and the Crows Zero films really look too out of this world given Monga's ultra-realistic setting. If gangster flicks are up your alley, then don't let this one pass you by as it's highly recommended!