[Film Review] Monga (2010)

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English Title: Monga
Original Title: Báng-kah 艋舺
Year: 2010
Country: Taiwan
Language: Min Nan, Mandarin
Genre: Drama, Action
Director: Doze Niu 钮承泽
Screenwriters:
Tseng Li-ting 曾莉婷
Doze Niu 钮承泽
Music: Sandee Chan 陈珊妮
Cinematography: Jack Pollock 包轩鸣
Cast:
Mark Chao 赵又廷
Ethan Juan 阮经天
Rhydian Vaughan 凤小岳
Ma Ju-lung 马如龙
Alice Ko 柯佳嬿
Huang Teng-hui 黄镫辉
Emerson Tsai 蔡昌宪
Wang Shih-sian 王识贤
Doze Niu 钮承泽
Chen Han-dian 陈汉典
Lin Hsiu-ling 林秀玲
Hsi Man-ning 席曼宁
Hsing Feng 邢峰
Lu Yi-ching 陆奕静
Reen Yu 喻虹渊
Russell Tang 唐国忠
Bamboo Chen 陈竹升
Rating: 7.2/10

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Taiwanese actor-turned-director Doze Niu’s second feature film, MONGA is a local box-office knockout at the turn of 21st-century’s second decade, notably for humbling the juggernaut AVATAR (2009) upon its release (grossed more than $8 millions, it is a humongous number for the itsy-bitsy island).

Niu’s film smartly harks back to the indigenous gangster counter-culture in the 1980s which is left with an indelible mark by auteur names like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it takes place in the Monga (“Monga” means “little boat” in tribal dialect, it is today’s Wanhua, Taipei’s oldest district), local gangsters are safeguarding their respective turfs where street vendors, temples, brothels and their patrons are among the hustle and bustle peopled within the mazelike, narrow alleys.

A 17-year-old Mosquito (Mark Chao in his star-making movie debut) moves to Monga with his single mother (Lin Hsiu-ling), bullied by classmates in the school, he is recruited to the “Gang of Princes” as their fifth member, nominally lead by Dragon (Vaughn), the son of the triad leader Geta (Ma Ju-lung), but the real savvy one is the consigliere Monk (Ethan Juan), whose devotion to Dragon roundly surpasses the usual purview of scorned brotherhood, and Niu acutely channels the tangible bromance into the narrative but camouflaged as a brotherly friendship, and leaves the signals hither and thither without asserting the obvious. Monk, as his name suggests, is the only one who shuns the brothel, but through his intimate interaction with Dragon, and the benign gestures with Mosquito, we don’t need to be spoon-fed to understand what is his deal.

Genre tropes start to encroach the gleeful tone when the quintet comes in for the usual hiccups, from a vapid girlfriend squabble, to a vengeful act (with super-glue) goes awry, until the impending annexing bid from a Chinese mainlander Grey Wolf (Niu himself, exuding understated menace but doesn’t hog the spotlight by dint of his directorial clout), power-usurping is in the pipeline and assassinations begin to pick off the old-guards, which are designed in a cavalier fashion and to some degree distracts viewers from taking its graveness seriously. But a pivotal reveal portents the disintegration of their bond which will be topped off by blood-spilling fratricide, which also flags up Niu’s penchant for over-egging the pudding with wordy elaboration albeit the stylish visual artistry (blood morphing into cherry blossom is a nice wrinkle).

The central young cast is gratuitously photogenic and Mark Chao comes off as slightly stilted but acquits himself in Mosquito’s greenness and the consequential disillusion. But the showstopper without any doubt is Ethan Juan, who won a coveted BEST LEADING ACTOR trophy in the Golden Horse Awards, which is the most prestigious recognition from pan-Chinese cinema. His endeavor impresses with both physical exertion and copious pathos. In the main, MONGA breezes a bracing air into the teen-gangster genre, which usually entails a veto of a mainland China release due to its unlawful subjects, and subsists its ethnographic mark remarkably.

referential points: Edward Yang’s A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (1991, 8.9/10); Hou Hsiao-hsien DAUGHTER OF THE NILE (1987, 7.0/10); Yang Yache’s GIRLFRIEND BOYFRIEND (2012, 6.3/10)

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One thought on “[Film Review] Monga (2010)

  1. Pingback: [Film Review] Girlfriend Boyfriend (2012) – Cinema Omnivore

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