Questions by Paige Lim and David Pountain
Back in 2011, Taiwanese writer-director Giddens Ko broke box office records in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong with his teen rom-com You Are the Apple of My Eye, a film praised for its charming and humorous portrayal of young love, lust and friendship. Jump to 2014 and Ko is facing backlash for a widely publicised affair, a scandal which the director admits put him in a bitter mood for his next feature.
Consequently, the newly premiered Mon Mon Mon Monsters is a gleefully gruesome, borderline-misanthropic work that revels in the debauched antics of the young Lin and the exuberantly awful bullies of his high school who capture a cannibalistic monster-woman. As the murderous but strangely sympathetic half-human is subject to a series of sadistic experiments, the film entertains and disturbs as a dazzlingly bloody, often hilarious depiction of the casual cruelty of teens.
At last month’s Far East Film Festival in Udine, we met up with the director who revealed the gloomy inspiration behind this colourful new horror-comedy.
So how did this project start out?
At the very beginning, my original thought was to make a horror film in a mockumentary form all shot by iPhone. But when I started to work on the script, I found I couldn’t exclude myself from the horror, so the project developed into a more personal story. I had a very different ending in the original script where the boy, the main character, kills everybody but he is so happy about it. But I rewrote it again and again. Finally, I wanted the main character to reveal a better message about his regret over his evil. He had to change, and so the story was changing, changing, changing
The film is definitely a change of pace after your previous, more romantic feature, You Are the Apple of My Eye. What made you decide to do something so different?
I was in no good mood to shoot a happy movie. I was depressed and I lay in hell. Maybe millions of Taiwanese people hated me, so I wanted to shoot a horror movie to scare everybody, to express my hate. But I’m a good person, so I changed everything around in the end.
One thing that’s very refreshing about this film is how unsentimental it is in its depiction of the teen years. There’s no nostalgia to it whatsoever. Do you feel that a lot of teen films tend to over-romanticise this period of growing up?
I rarely watch other Asian high school films. I really like Hollywood blockbusters or horror films. Because all my heart is full of hate, I cannot show you anything about love. The last character that I wrote for the film is actually the kind-hearted fat girl who sits outside of the classroom. That character didn’t exist at the very beginning of the script. A couple of weeks before I started shooting, I added in that character because I finally felt salvation from almost finishing this project, so I found a way out for my hatred. I think that the audience will need a key character to represent their salvation as well, not only me. The main character’s self-destruction represents my regret for my life but I left this last hope for the film that is the girl who sits outside. That was very important.
Given that a lot of Taiwanese films are high school dramas that depict this time in a very romanticised light, how do you think they will react to such a different sort of film?
I really have no idea. My boss, she gave me money. She invested in me. At the very beginning, the budget of the film was about $500,000. It was a rather small, experimental budget. But because it was not a mockumentary anymore, we sort of tripled our whole budget for the film. If we had gone with our original budget, we would probably have made our money back but now we’re not so sure. I really don’t know.
The main character, Lin, starts off as quite a decent person before he stoops to doing some pretty appalling things with the boys who once ruthlessly bullied him. Would you say, to some extent, that the high school environment creates horrible people or are teenagers just inherently awful sometimes?
What makes a personality really depends on each decision that he makes. Originally, in the script, I actually provided the guy’s family background to show what his character was like but then I didn’t want people to think that his family background is what makes him do this. I actually deleted those scenes. So Lin, although he wants to be a good person, lacks guts and courage. It’s really because of peer pressure that he lowers his standards of morality. That’s my way of thinking but Lin also searches for opportunities to be a good person – and he fails.
This film is quite a departure from what we’d usually associate with Taiwanese cinema. If anything, I’d compare its style more to the work of Japanese filmmakers like Sion Sono and Tetsuya Nakashima. Were you heavily influenced by artists like this?
When I was making the film, I kept on telling the crew that we’re making a type of film that has never succeeded in the Taiwanese film market before. I am deeply influenced by a lot of Japanese comic books. Every director that makes a huge horror massacre film has some aesthetic ideas on the how the slaughter should be done. The true reason behind each massacre has to reflect the director’s own thoughts, and I think that’s what makes each slaughter film unique. Take the very end of my film, with the girl who sits outside of the classroom. She is really kind-hearted and that’s what lets her survive.
You Are the Apple of My Eye was a huge success in Asia. Do you feel pressured to live up to the expectations set by that success?
I feel really pressured but not at the box office. I’m really afraid I’m gonna make a shit film. I think every director eventually has their own shit film. No matter how good you are, you will eventually make that shit film. I don’t know when that film will come along. I hope it’s not this one.