MONGA - A Surprise From Taiwan
MONGA (gangster drama in Mandarin & Hokkien)
Cast: Ethan Juan, Mark Chao, Ma Ju-lung, Ko Chia-yen, Rhydian Vaughan, Jason Wang, Tsai Chang-hsine, Huang Teng-hui, Chen Han-tien and Hsing Feng.
Director: Doze Nui
Screenplay: Tseng Li-ting and Doze Niu
Time: 145 mins
Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 4)
PREAMBLE: Released in February this year, the epic-styled Monga was a runaway hit in Taiwan, grossing US$1.6 million (RM5.2 mil) in its first week. Its success in Taiwan should be obvious. Besides the historical interest in its locale (the Wanhua district of Taipei), there is the attraction of its young and hot cast of TV stars like Ethan Juan, Mark Chao and the Tom Cruise lookalike, Rhydian Vaughan.
Needless to say, Monga's success gives fresh hope to starting a 'new wave' in Taiwan's film industry. Elsewhere, however, it has to compete with the more vibrant and better-made Hong Kong gangster efforts - and the differences and weaknesses may be glaring.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Set in the 80s, high school student Mosquito (Mark Chao) explains at the start that he became a gangster because of a chicken leg. The chicken leg was his lunch and when a bully snatched it away from him, the so-called Prince Gang, led by Dragon Lee (Vaughan) intervenes - and recruits him into the 'brotherhood of five' - with Monk (Ethan Juan), Monkey and A-Po. The boys get along reasonably well with their elders, the Temple Front triad led by Dragon's dad, Geta (Ma Ju-lung).
The gang's youthful skirmishes and street fights soon develop into a more sinister conflict when mainland gangsters like Gray Wolf (played by director Doze Nui himself) try to muscle into Monga with guns - considered cowardly weapons by the locals.
With a power struggle in the cards, conspiracies and betrayal follow. Will friendship triumph over greed and power?
HITS & MISSES: The coming-of-age story may seem cliched but it has enough twists and turns to sustain our interest. Director Niu has developed Mosquito's character (as a fatherless kid brought up by his hair-salon owner mother) well enough to get our sympathy even though some of the subplots may be rather incredible. A case in point is his platonic relationship with a young prostitute (Ko Chia-yen) that seems a bit badly contrived. Also, the camera work on the Monga locations looks good (at least to non-Taipeh residents) and the lapses into Hokkein dialect lend a touch of reality to the film (although it can be irritating to some).
What I dislike most about the movie is the slow and draggy narrative - with repetitious bonding scenes taking nearly two-and-a-half hours to unfold a story that should be familiar to fans of gang flicks about brotherhood and betrayal. Indeed, compared to Western and HK films, the action here is mighty tame. Acting-wise, Chao and Vaughan appear rather wooden but Juan provides a powerful account of himself. Niu is also convincing as the mysterious old flame of Mosquito's mother and newcomer to the district.
THE LOWDOWN: Promising but not compelling.