Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast: Jeon Jong-seo, Kate Hudson, Ed Skrein, Evan Whitten, Craig Robinson, Cory Roberts
Running Time: 106 min.
By Paul Bramhall
When it comes to the age-old question of which Asian actors should try their hand at Hollywood, my usual response is to ask why they’d need to in the first place, however even in the 2020’s Hollywood remains a kind of validation in the world of cinema that you’ve “made it.” When it comes to Korean talent making the leap across the Pacific, while the 2000’s and 2010’s gave us the likes of Lee Byung-hun and Rain turning up in such varied productions as Ninja Assassin, The Magnificent Seven, Terminator Genisys, and Speed Racer, in the 2020’s it’s become all about the superhero flick. So we’ve had Ma Dong-seok turn up in 2021’s Eternals and Park Seo-joon in 2023’s The Marvels, however despite the sizable budgets, there hasn’t really been a production which truly showcases why these actors are so popular in their homeland.
Actresses on the other hand have had far greater success, seemingly going with the approach of favouring plot and character over budget and spectacle, a number of titles that often play with the concept of being a fish out of water have left a far longer lasting impression than much of the big studio output. From Rinko Kikuchi in 2014’s Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, to Shinobu Terajima in 2017’s Oh Lucy!, to Han Ye-ri in 2020’s Minari. Ensuring the trend continues in 2021 was Jeon Jong-seo (Ballerina, The Call), who after debuting in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning from 2018 (in which, like Han Ye-ri in Minari, she starred alongside Steven Yeun), caught the attention of director and writer Ana Lily Amirpour.
Still a relative newcomer to feature length productions herself, Amirpour made her debut with 2014’s A Girls Walks Home Alone at Night, a remake of her own 2011 short of the same name, and billed with the memorable tagline of being “The first Iranian Vampire Western” (Amirpour is ethnically Iranian, however the production was actually shot in California). A couple of years later she’d follow it up with The Bad Batch, which created a dystopian vision that brought together Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, and Jim Carrey in a tale involving cannibals. While it lacked the critical success of her debut, what couldn’t be argued is that Amirpour was a distinctive new voice in a film industry that has become increasingly uniform and predictable. It’d take 5 years for her to sit in the director’s chair for another feature length production, mostly sticking to directing TV in between, until in 2021 she’d release Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.
It’s rare that you get the perfect alchemy of director and star, however with Amirpour’s subversive storytelling style and Jong-seo’s edgy screen presence, their pairing may be as close as we’ll get. Following up Iranian vampires and desert dwelling cannibals may be a tough act to follow, but as the titular Mona Lisa Amirpour gifts Jong-seo a character that plays to all her strengths. When proceedings open we meet Jong-seo bound in a strait jacked inside the padded cell of a mental asylum. Approached by a patronizing nurse to have her toenails cut, her reluctance to be touched sees the nurse become aggressive, forcibly dragging her across the floor so she can get her job done. However it turns out to be a decision she soon regrets when it’s revealed Jong-seo can control peoples movements with her mind, leading to the nurse repeatedly stabbing herself in the thigh with the nail clippers to bloody results.
Seizing the opportunity to escape, Jong-seo makes a break for it and disappears into the New Orleans night under a full moon, wearing nothing but the strait jacket and a craving for Cheez Puffos. Who exactly is Mona Lisa? Why has she been locked up in an asylum in America for the past 10 years? Where do her powers come from? All of this would be important if Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon was a Marvel flick, however thankfully it’s not, and Amirpour’s script isn’t particularly interested in going into such details, instead throwing Jong-seo into the neon sweat drenched streets of New Orleans with a childlike wonder. Encountering drug dealers, alcohol fuelled lovers’ quarrels, and a cop who just wants to do his job and bring her back, Jong-seo eventually falls in with a streetwise but down on her luck stripper played by Kate Hudson (Almost Famous, Kung Fu Panda 3).
After witnessing Jong-seo’s powers firsthand, Hudson realises that she may have found her ticket to riches, as the pair go from making poor tippers in the strip club she works at have an involuntary change of heart, to hanging out at ATM’s were suddenly people withdrawing cash seem all too happy to part with it. Jong-seo innocently goes along with Hudson’s requests, not least because she ends up living under the same roof when Hudson invites her to stay with her and her young son, played by Evan Whitten (Words on Bathroom Walls, Chupa). It’s the relationship between Jong-seo and Whitten that proves to be the heart of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, as Jong-seo finds someone through which she can begin to make sense of the world she’s been thrust into, and Whitten can finally connect with a grown-up willing to give him the attention he’s been seeking.
As her first English language performance Jong-seo mesmerizes whenever she’s onscreen, offering up the same enigmatic presence that made her steal the show in Burning. That sense of alienation from the world is brilliantly conveyed through a mix of off kilter naivety, combined with her own awareness of what she’s capable of, creating a delicate balance that makes her come across as equal parts vulnerable and threatening. This is demonstrated perfectly during a scene in which she makes the officer pursuing her shoot himself in the leg. Played by Craig Robinson (Dolemite Is My Name, Dragon Wars: D-War), his cop feels like a moral compass amidst the seediness of the New Orleans locales, and provides one of the funniest moments when he partakes in one of the slowest foot chases committed to film – limping along to catch up with Hudson, who herself can’t go any faster than a brisk walk due to wearing heels.
Indeed Amirpour weaves in a subtle streak of humor throughout the 105-minute running time, often using the absurdity of the world through a stranger’s eyes speak for itself. There’s a feeling that Amirpour is using Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as her way of expressing a hopeful outlook on the word, as with each misfit Jong-seo comes across, upon getting to know them none are fundamentally bad people. Even Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refuelled, Alita: Battle Angel) as the convenience store drug dealer ultimately chooses to look out for her rather than take advantage, clocking in an entertaining performance in which he makes the most of his limited screen time.
For fans of 80’s cinema it’s clear that Amirpour is a fan, with a number of recognizable references thrown in, my favorite one being when Jong-seo initially approaches Skein and his gang obviously framed to recreate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Give me your clothes” scene from The Terminator. In another scene we see her watching Superman II on TV, and aesthetically there are echoes of Alex Cox’s Repo Man throughout, all of which come together to give Amirpour’s latest its own distinctive look that feels just a little off centre from reality.
As her 3rd feature length production Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon cements Amirpour as a filmmaker who continues to carve out her own voice, and through the casting of Jong Jeon-seo has created her best work so far. Creating a surreal world of drug dealers, diners, strippers, and death metal, by the closing scenes everyone reaches some kind of an epiphany, regardless of if its big or small. Whether that be to no longer take something for granted that they thought would always be there, or that not everyone you meet is going to be a bad person, sometimes these things are worth being reminded of.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10