Rather like its punk protags, “Monga” is a wannabe gangster/community epic whose reach falls a tad short of its ambitions. Bathed in retro nostalgia for a time (Taipei, mid-’80s) when “brotherhood,” small mafias and the seedy backstreets of the titular area still repped a way of life for young men with a certain kind of star in their eyes, this second directorial outing by actor Doze Niu (following his low-budget comedy “What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?”) is still a considerable undertaking that holds attention over its two-hour-plus length, despite a weak lead and some wobbly scripting.
It’s the kind of larger-drawn movie that Taiwan should be attempting if the island’s industry is ever to get back on its feet again. Niu’s gamble looks to be repaid — at least locally — with “Monga” strong-arming a brawny $1.6 million in its first week since bowing Feb. 5.
Monga (known in the local Hokkien dialect as Bangka) is the oldest district of Taipei, with famous sites like Snake Alley and Longshan Temple that, prior to a cleanup in the ’90s, were equally famous for their iniquity.
When new transfer student Mosquito (Mark Chao) is bullied at school over his lunch box, he’s taken under the wing of the so-called Temple Front gang, led by handsome Dragon (Eurasian thesp Rhydian Vaughan), son of vet gang boss Geta (Ma Ju-lung).
“I moved to Monga when I was 17, and became a gangster because of a chicken leg,” says Mosquito in v.o. Soon, this son of a beauty shop owner, Ling, is brawling in the back alleys with other Temple Fronters: Dragon’s deputy and childhood pal, Monk (Ethan Juan), butcher’s son A-po, and fighter Monkey.
Initially, the teens have only small-time crime and personal revenge on their minds as their hormones rage. When rival punk gangster Dog Boy (Chen Han-tien), who first bullied Mosquito, gets uppity again, the Temple Fronters punish him horribly, causing Geta to freak out at what his son has sanctioned.
Halfway through, the story shifts forward a year to 1987 as the boys graduate and “step into the world of adults, with no turning back.” Things now get serious, with the quintet training to become full-time gangsters. A complex series of alliances and personal betrayals unfolds as Gray Wolf (helmer Niu, with silvered hair), a far more organized “mainland” gangster (i.e. of mainland Chinese rather than Taiwan-born parents) tries to muscle in on the local fiefdoms.
It’s in this half, where the relationships and dramatic strands should take on an epic scale, that the screenplay by Tseng Li-ting and Niu isn’t really up to the job. Tensions among the sizable cast and the dense array of emotional currents — including Ling’s backstory, Mosquito’s romance with a scarred hooker (Ko Chia-yen), and even an unrequited gay love — are resolved through a series of script contrivances rather than truly organic development. Dialogue is also weak at crucial moments.
Most damagingly, there’s little sense of real physical threat here — and certainly nothing on a par with that in some of Johnnie To’s movies and most South Korean gangster yarns.
With Vaughan doing little more than switching on a Tom Cruise grin and looking cool and cocky, pic lacks a strong central character. Best perfs are all on the borders (Juan’s intense Monk, Ma’s vet Geta), with Niu himself increasingly carrying the film in its second half as the wily Gray Wolf.
What holds “Monga” together is the superb widescreen lensing by Taiwan-based American d.p. Jake Pollock (“Yang Yang,” “The Message”), whose saturated colors bring a vividness to both the day- and nighttime backstreet scenes that the screenplay only fitfully matches.