Taiwanese film-maker Giddens Ko, whose coming-of-age movie You’re The Apple Of My Eye (2011) was a huge critical and commercial success across Asia, is well aware that his second directorial feature will be a hard sell.
While he returns to a Taiwanese high school setting for Mon Mon Mon Monsters, it is no rose-tinted youth drama – it is a gory thriller featuring extreme bullying and torture scenes that some viewers may find hard to stomach.
“I’ve been working with the marketing team on how we can promote this film and get people to be brave enough to step into the cinemas to watch it, because it’s not exactly a fun and sprightly kind of movie.
“But I’m just thankful that despite all the blood here, the production team never tried to stifle my creativity in any way. They were very supportive of me and let me make this movie the way I envisioned it,” Ko, 38, tells The Straits Times in Mandarin in a recent phone interview.
Indeed, despite the extreme violence depicted in the film, there was never any question that the director would receive the NTD 100 million (S$4.5 million) production budget to make it.
Besides the runaway success of You’re The Apple Of My Eye, which grossed more than US$24 million (S$32.7 million) at the global box office, Ko has been behind several other popular films in recent years – he scripted and produced the quirky romantic comedy Cafe. Waiting. Love (2014), as well as wrote the screenplay for the heavily hyped mystery drama The Tenants Downstairs (2016).
Those films were adapted from his novels, which already had a steady fan following before he became a film-maker.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters, his first screenplay not adapted from a book, centres on a group of high school students who capture a mysterious monster and proceed to torture it in various ways.
Among this group of students is Lin Shu-wei (played by Deng Yu-kai), who empathises with the monster, but is scared to tell group leader Duan Ren-hao (Kent Tsai) to stop.
Even though the idea for the story was seeded in Ko’s mind eight years ago, he put off making it as he “was not in the right emotional state” for it.
Three years ago, he finally decided to bring the story to the big screen because he went through a rough patch at the time.
“This movie is so different in tone from Apple Of My Eye because I was feeling completely different emotions at the time. I was being hated by millions of Taiwanese, and there was no way I could make another happy movie.
“This came from a very dark place and a very difficult time in my life,” he says.
He is referring to the time when he was blasted online by fans and netizens for cheating on his longtime illustrator girlfriend Hsiao-nei with a television reporter named Chou Yu-ting.
After he and Chou were photographed checking into a motel together in 2014, he faced so much online vitriol that he felt compelled to hold a press conference to apologise for his behaviour.
Reportedly, he and Chou, 26, are still dating.
No matter the reason that pushed him to make this film, he hopes that he has done a good job with it.
“More than feeling pressure over how much the movie will make at the box office, I am worried that I have made a terrible film.
“At some point in their lives, every film-maker will make at least one terrible movie, but I hope it’s not this one,” he says.
It is certainly not the type of film that everyone will understand. When the film made its European premiere in April at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, he says that a number of people walked out of the screening during the scenes of students bullying impoverished and senile senior citizens, such as tying them to chairs with wheels and racing them down the hallway.
“Evil is portrayed in many different ways in this film and it’s not easy viewing.
“But I hope it gets the audience thinking about these things,” he says.
Early reviews for the film have been generally positive, with The Hollywood Reporter writing that the film is “compulsively watchable” and “features inspired moments”.
The newbie cast of talents here have also been praised for their acting skills and screen presence.
Tsai, 20, in particular, is now a fast-rising star, thanks to his wholesome good looks and recent turn in HBO Asia’s Taiwan TV series The Teenage Psychic (2017), which he did after filming Monsters.
But Ko, who also made Kai Ko a star after casting him in You’re The Apple Of My Eye, refutes the notion that he has the gift for picking out raw talent.
“Actually, I don’t think I have the knack for mentoring new actors – I already have so many other things to do on set, so that’s not something I would want to invest too much time in.
“So I guess I’ve just been lucky so far with these actors and I’m glad that the audience has taken to them.
“But if I had the chance, I would have picked established stars to act in my films, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with inexperienced actors,” he says in jest.
Making Monsters has been cathartic for Ko – it seems like a burden of sorts has been lifted from his shoulders. “I’m feeling pretty good right now. I think my next movie will be a light-hearted and happy one,” he says.
• Mon Mon Mon Monsters is showing in cinemas.