CIFF After Dark Review: Giddens Ko’s ‘Mon Mon Mon Monsters’

Early in Mon Mon Mon Monsters, Lin Shu-wei, a Taiwan teen, goes to his teacher with a recording of popular class bully Ren-hao threatening to kill him. After listening to it, the teacher looks at him with disappointment or disinterest, maybe both, and explains that snitching on his fellow students will only ostracize him more. In the real world — the world that teachers and parents alike threaten kids with all the time — Lin can’t just tattle on his bullies, but should learn to work with them instead. The lesson here is that you are either the bullied or the bully, and being the bullied is for losers. While this scene plays out with a sense of cruel, absurd comedy, some would say it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Does it indeed “get better”?

From here, Lin is forced to work with Ren-hao and his crew of flunkies on a community service assignment, in which they torture and demoralize the elderly instead of feeding them. While hanging out, they happen to run into two monsters that like to eat people. You know, typical Friday night stuff. They even manage to capture the youngest one and take her back to their club house so they can torture her without guilt or remorse. While Lin finds it difficult to join in, he remains complicit in the act, knowing that if they weren’t picking on a monster, they’d be picking on him. And she is a monster after all, so it’s got to be okay, right?

Director Giddens Ko is incredibly effective at expressing the different shapes and forms that monsters come in, whether they’re high school vagrants, abusive teachers or even those who remain silent so they don’t find themselves in the crosshairs. It’s a heavy subject, one that the horror genre may not be totally suitable for handling without becoming a revenge fantasy. Recently, Jordan Peele successfully utilized the genre to comment on the social anxiety around race in his film Get Out. Peele deftly attacks the subject with a potent combination of comedy and terror, knowing exactly when the film should illicit a laugh or slit a throat. For Mon Mon Mon Monsters, Ko takes a similar route, coupling irreverent humor with buckets of gore, and he achieves comparable success. While the film often feels bombastic, it is still measured and nuanced in its response to bullies and the world that creates them. When Ren-hao’s gang inevitably get their comeuppance, it is with a mix of frustration and sorrow instead of just reveling in bloody catharsis.

Ko’s sense of oppression goes beyond just the action of his films’ characters. The environment seems to stifle and suffocate, littered with mounds of junk that fill so many scenes of the film. Many shots are framed with out-of-focused objects in the foreground, with the viewer’s perspective of the subject influenced by their relationship to the clutter around them. When the monster’s big sister goes hunting for her sibling, the frames become littered with corpses and rivers of blood. The human body becomes analogous to garbage — and, with nearly eight billion people and counting, it becomes harder and harder to argue against humanity’s disposability.

It’s possible this may paint a gloomy picture of Ko’s film, but it’s not that at all. Filled with so much love for life and irreverent wit, Mon Mon Mon Monsters actually inspires and entertains while pointedly dealing with a subject that hits close to home for many. Its final moments are a particularly effective rallying cry for the downtrodden and, if current events tell us anything, it’s that people are still out there listening for such a call to action.

Jae K. Renfrow (@jaekrenfrow)is a Chicago actor, writer and director His first short film, Amore Divino e Profano, is being edited right now. He works with his wife Gail, and you can read his writing and see some of their video essays at jaeetgail.com.