Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest feature follows in the footsteps of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, presenting a similar protagonist to that iconic vampire and her misadventures. Here, our eponymous heroine, Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo) suddenly awakens from a catatonic state, strait-jacketed and disoriented. To a pulsing, energetic soundtrack from Daniele Luppi and Bottin that continues the immaculate vibes of Amirpour’s previous masterpiece, the perspective smoothly moves in way too close and out too far as Lee dizzily adjusts to her cell.
Marked by a combination of an auditory Doppler effect whine and a classic double dolly zoom, Mona Lisa manifests an uncanny ability to control people’s movements. After a quiet but violent escape, she begins a picaresque journey through New Orleans, entering a small world of eccentric friends and foes. Despite her melodramatic origins, with the titular blood moon looming ahead, the story evolves into a more conventional on-the-run comedy. There is little to explain how this Korean creature came to be, but Mona Lisa is all the better for focusing on being a self-contained B-movie bildungsroman as she wanders around the French Quarter, fascinated by everything from Cheetos to shopping channel ads.
The other characters on this night-time escapade don’t feel very new, echoing successful tropes that preceded this story. Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Craig Robinson switches roles from his lovable criminal character in that show to becoming the foiled cop here, but with a similar charm and little to change his appearance to differentiate between the two. Ed Skrein channels a manic Matthew Lillard vibe as a neon himbo DJ-drug dealer named Fuzz, and Kate Hudson plays a stripper named Bonnie who uses Mona’s powers for unlimited tips, which can’t help but feel like a local equivalent to J-Lo’s role in Hustlers.
But, despite this repetitive quality and the short run time which limits the three-dimensionality of the stories, each performance brings a warmth that makes the ensemble so promising that I’d happily watch more of all of them. In the second half, Bonnie’s son Charlie (Evan Whitten) takes on a guide role, treating Mona as a person rather than a convict, a love interest or a money tree, taking the time to find out what she wants from her freedom. Once again, it doesn’t take the story anywhere unfamiliar or unexpected, but Mona and Charlie’s friendship is endearing and entertaining enough that the well-trodden beats of teaching her about music and swear-words still charm, with the young Whitten impressing when he could easily be cloying or overly childish. Though the supernatural takes a back-seat in this second half, toning down the intensity, the jaunty neon aesthetic remains strong enough to make it intensely enjoyable.
Amirpour’s stylised vibrant approach and dry sense of humour shines in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. The dialogue and physical comedy is immensely entertaining, especially from Skrein’s Fuzz; all of his lines are gold, he provides excellent outfits and rides a delightfully stupid car. These laugh-out-loud aspects and the unsubtle rock soundtrack don’t compromise on the sympathy elicited, especially from Jeon and Hudson, and all in all, the film is a light B-movie thriller for those who prefer the more joyous, wholesome side to the spooky season.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon showed as part of London Film Festival 2021.
by Fatima Sheriff
Fatima (she/her) is a biomedical sciences graduate and aspiring science communicator. Literary adaptations with beautiful soundtracks call to her, but she enjoys anything with an original concept, witty writing, diverse casting or even the briefest appearance of Dan Stevens. Her favourite films do fluctuate but her love for Paddington 2 is perennial. She can be found on Letterboxd @sherifff and on Twitter here.