Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taiwan Film Days

I caught two films San Francisco Film Society's Taiwan Film Days at Viz Cinema from October 22 to 24.

Monga; directed by Doze Niu; Min Nan (Taiwanese) and Mandarin with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Tears; directed by Wen-Tang Cheng; Min Nan (Taiwanese) with subtitles; (2009)


Monga which means canoe in Min Nan was a showy gangster movie about five teenagers who come together to form a gang. The leader is Dragon who is the son of the local mob boss, the brains behind the outfit is Monk, the fighter is Monkey and the coward is A-Po. The fifth member is a new kid a school called Mosquito. The five of them form a tight-knit group who assert their collective will at school and in the neighborhoods. As they get older, Dragon's father essentially sends them to a gangster training camp which consists of learning mental discipline and fighting skills with knives, swords and fists (but not guns).

Change is coming though. A mainlander (Chinese from the PRC) has aligned himself with a Taiwanese gangster recently released from prison. Director Doze Niu plays Grey Wolf (the mainlander) who preaches co-prosperity but secretly wants to take over the street action in Taipei. To accomplish this, he induces Monk to betray his gang. Monk is ambitious and harbors resentment towards Boss Geta (Dragon's father). Balancing him out is Mosquito who never knew his father and has made Boss Geta his father figure.

The film boils down to a story of betrayal and youth growing up to harsh realities. Another nice touch is the film was set in the 1980s so Dragon has a mullet that makes him look a little like Jose Canseco from the late 1980s. Monkey and A-Po have New Wave bangs which reminded me of the band A Flock of Seagulls.

Clocking in at nearly 2.5 hours, the film could have been edited down to beneficial effect. Also, I was expecting more of a gritty gangster film and Monga was rather stylized. Striving for epic dimensions, the film felt like a special 2 hour episode of Miami Vice set in Taipei. Ethan Juan and Mark Chao are effective as Monk and Mosquito, respectively. Han-Tien Chen as Mosquito's initial nemesis Dog Boy and Ju-Lung Ma as Boss Geta stood out among the supporting cast.

I can't fully recommend the film because of its excessive run time but I was entertained for most of the film.


More gritty than Monga is Tears - a tale of partial redemption for a crooked cop who isn't so bad when you get to know him. Guo (Chen-Nan Tsai) is a fifty-something cop who shows the younger cops a thing or two about water boarding. He lives in what is basically a SRO with his dog. Divorced, mostly estranged from his children and he claims to have not shed a tear in 10 years. His only semi-emotional interaction is with a betelnut beauty named Wen (Enno Cheng).

Guo catches a case involving a girl who overdosed on extra pure heroin. His dogged pursuit of that case leads to unexpected connections with Wen and brutal consequences. I won't say much more except the connections were highly contrived but the portrayal of Guo is told in a detached manner that gives the story a weary & cynical feel to match Guo's outlook. Guo's ultimate fate didn't elicit much of an emotional response from me. It was more of a dispassionate coda to the story which tried to be elegiac.

Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age but Tears rates a lukewarm recommendation from me as well. Chen-Nan Tsai's performance is worth the cost of admission or rental. Jian-wei Huang's performance as Guo's junior partner who isn't as sensitive as he appears also stood out.

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