Billed as an action-loaded gangster flick, Niu Chen-zer’s (鈕承澤) Monga (艋舺) stars some of Taiwan’s brightest young things, including Ethan Ruan (阮經天) and Mark Chao (趙又廷).
With a stellar cast and entertaining storyline that weaves together action and drama, the film should do well with younger audience members who like to view the underworld through rose-tinted glasses.
Set in 1980s Bangka, otherwise known as Manka, an old Taipei borough that is now part of the city’s Wanhua District (萬華), the movie opens with transfer student Mosquito (Chao) doing battle with school bullies. The following day, a high school gang comprised of Hoklo-speakers approaches Mosquito and recruits him.
Zhilong (Rhydian Vaughan), whose father Geta (Ma Ru-long) is a well-respected underworld kingpin, leads the gang of five. Fellow gang member Monk (Ruan), however, is the most ruthless. Together they skip class and spend their days getting into street fights, going clubbing and wooing girls.
With their carefree innocence, the gang members seem invincible, until one night a spot of street justice accidentally leads to murder.
Meanwhile, a gang of Mainlanders from another area attempts to muscle in on the action in Bangka by befriending Wenqian (Jason Wang, 王識賢) a member of a rival gang. The outsiders conspire to take out Bangka’s gang bosses, including Zhilong’s father, and approach Monk to undertake the slayings, who obliges.
Mosquito uncovers Monk’s betrayal, and the scene is set for a bloody showdown.
Niu said he wanted to craft a uniquely Taiwanese gangster flick. Visually, the director has achieved his goal as the characters in the film look like archetypal taike (台客) with their floral print shirts, bell-bottoms and flip-flops.
The movie’s romanticism is palpable — it is more a paean to times gone than a pure gangster flick. Friendship, the innocence of youth and loyalty take precedence over scheming and plotting, and the violence is rendered lyrically rather than realistically. The opening street fight, which involves more than 100 extras, is played out like a ballet set against the score composed by Sandee Chen (陳珊妮).
Unlike Niu’s semi-autobiographical feature debut What On Earth Have I Done Wrong?! (情非得已之生存之道), Monga’s scale and structure require storytelling skills that the director has yet to master. The narrative is uneven and frequently plagued with dull dialogue. Tensions mostly dissolve as the characters’ conflicting emotions come across as more constructed than heartfelt.
One exception is Monk, who is secretly in love with Zhilong, played by British-Taiwanese actor Vaughan. Ruan injects his role with layers of emotion that elicit sympathy for a man torn between love and revenge.
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