There be monsters: Giddens Ko taps his dark side in second film
Taiwanese director says dark times in his own life fed the creative fire for his next feature
Audiences familiar with Taiwanese director Giddens Ko’s blockbuster teen romance hit You Are The Apple Of My Eye are in for a surprise.
One of Taiwan’s most popular and prolific novelists, with more than 60 published works, Ko made a name for himself in the film industry with that release, back in 2011 – a coming-of-age romcom, which smashed box office records in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Ko’s debut spawned a rash of youth romance follow-ups, including Cafe Waiting Love (2014) – adapted by Chiang Chin-lin from Ko’s novel of the same name – the Frankie Chen-directed Our Times (2015) and last year’s At Café 6, from Neal Wu, all attempting to replicate its success.
But audiences hoping for another throwback to the rose-tinted, bittersweet nostalgic days of high school from Ko should prepare themselves to look elsewhere.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters, Ko’s second directorial feature, is a radical departure from that genre – a wickedly raucous, blood-splattered, darkly humorous, school-bullying high-school affair, which explores the ugly depths of evil embodied within a bunch of presumably innocent youths of today’s generation.
In the film, a group of teenagers capture a man-eating female monster and begin torturing her in the dilapidated basement of their school.
Meanwhile, they must fend off the monster’s elder sister, who goes on a killing rampage while looking for her sibling.
It stars a cast of fresh, new faces including leading actor Deng Yukai who plays Lin Shu-wei, an unpopular student constantly the target of school bullies led by the inhumane, but charismatic Ren-Hao (Cai Fan-xi). When Lin is roped into torturing the monster by the group, he faces a struggle between his morals and the enjoyment of finally being on the other side, as the perpetrator, for once.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters was chosen as the closing film at the 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival in April, and made its European premiere at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, a fortnight later. It is set to open in Taiwan on July 28, with other Asian runs to follow.
In the six years since his debut runaway hit, Ko has never strayed far from the headlines – but for all the wrong reasons, most notably when having to deal with public outrage over a widely publicized scandal in his private life back in 2014.
Then, he admitted at a press conference to cheating on his girlfriend of nine years with television reporter Zhou Tingyu, after he had been photographed by the paparazzi checking into a motel with the latter. He has since broken up with his girlfriend and is dating Zhou.
The director says he sees the making of Mon Mon Mon Monsters as a “redemption” film of sorts. He does not shy away from making thinly disguised allusions to his prior fall from grace, which he credits as being the inspiration for the darkness in his new screenplay.
“I was not in a good mood to shoot a happy movie. I was depressed and I lived in hell. Maybe millions of Taiwanese people hated me in that period of time, so I wanted to shoot a horror movie to scare everybody, to express my hate,” says Ko matter-of-factly.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters is unabashedly devoid of the sweet sentimentality and romanticism of adolescence depicted in You Are The Apple Of My Eye, clearly reflecting Ko’s emotional state during the time he began work on his latest project.
He adds: “After I shot You Are The Apple Of My Eye, I rarely watched other similar adolescent Asian campus films. Because my heart was full of hate, I could not shoot anything about love.”
Through the behavior of the students in Mon Mon Mon Monsters, the director hopes to put across the multi-faceted nature of evil and its ability to manifest even in the most implicit of ways. The film also manages to be a subtle social commentary on bystander apathy and groupthink.
“To me, to be evil doesn’t mean violent or angry behavior. You can show evil in a happy way. That’s my way of portraying people’s evilness – when you’re innocent about your evilness, that’s actually true evil because you don’t realise how mean you actually are,” says Ko.
With formulaic youth romances being a proven formula for success, Ko admits being uncertain of the reception that awaits his latest project.
He recalls feeling “a little nervous” during the film’s screening at the Far East Film Festival because he noticed five people leaving the screening midway through.
“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 really have no idea [how audiences will react]. If we had gone with our original budget, we would probably have made our money back, but now we’re not so sure,” he says.
Initially, the idea was to shoot a horror mockumentary with only the use of iPhones, on a “small, experimental” budget of US$500,000, explains Ko, who adds that he personally enjoys horror films and is deeply influenced by Japanese comics. The idea was eventually scrapped and the film’s budget was subsequently tripled.
You Are The Apple Of My Eye raked in more than US$24 million in total box-office receipts worldwide, but the director remains unfazed about feeling pressure now to match up to that success.
“My real pressure lies not in the box office success, but I’m really afraid I’m going to make a shit film,” he says. “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, but I hope it’s not this one.”