Real psychiatric hospitals haven’t used straitjackets for decades, but no self-respecting genre filmmaker is going to let that get in her way. From the moment Mona Lisa And The Blood Moon provides a ceiling’s-eye view of Jeon Jong-seo writhing on the white floor of her white hospital room, buckled up inside a canvas wrap, we know exactly where we are. Man, that chick is crazy, blip city! That’s what that straitjacket is telling you.
So! In comes a trash-talking blonde who makes Nurse Ratched look like Mother Teresa; after calling straitjacket-girl stupid and hitting her head a couple of times, she pulls out a pedicure set full of sharp things for slicing off horny toenails. Big mistake, lady! Don’t think that old constraint garment is going to save you, because Mona Lisa can make you do anything she wants. Yes, she can make you stab yourself if she likes, just by looking at you. See how it works? Whack go the clippers, right into Nursie’s thigh! Blood everywhere. Gotcha!
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Director Ana Lily Amirpour is an Iranian-born British director who made her name in 2010 with a wholly original vampire film, shot in elegant black and white and set in Teheran, called A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Amirpour played the vampire herself, swathed in a burka as she paced the foggy streets, sinking her fangs into any man who thought he had the upper hand.
Her new film is also a revenge fantasy firmly on the side of outsiders and outcasts, set this time in traditionally spooky New Orleans. Mona Lisa uses the nurse’s keys to escape and hits Crescent City. She finds her tribe among the local drug dealers and strippers, all of whom are disinclined to cooperate with police trying to find a runaway, even a mad one. Kate Hudson plays swamp rat Bonnie Belle, an aging pole-dancer with a heart of brass, who takes Mona in. It’s partly an act of charity, but mostly because she’s seen what Mona can do to sort out a street fight. It is Bonnie’s neglected young son Charlie (Evan Whitten, charming) who becomes Mona’s truest friend.
In terms of style, however, the two films seem to have been made using different toolboxes. Gone is the sobriety of black and white; Amirpour here evokes the vulgar energy of New Orleans using vividly saturated color filtered through wackily distorting lenses. A symphony of lighting effects makes the most of fireworks, neon signs, the dashboard lights catching the disco ball in the car driven by drug dealer Fuzz (Ed Skrein). Even Fuzz’s kitchen is lit with UV strips, which turns the mundane process of frying eggs into something like a club night.
And while A Girl Walks Home Alone glided by at a thoughtful arthouse pace, Mona Lisa is a romp, peppered with funny lines and the kind of in-jokes beloved of fanboys. What has to be the slowest chase in film history — Bonnie trying to run in her six-inch Perspex pole-dancing shoes, the haplessly amiable cop in pursuit (Craig Robinson) hobbling on crutches, having already fallen foul of Mona Lisa’s powers — is a particular highlight.
It’s all nonsense, obviously, but fun nonsense. Mona Lisa And The Blood Moon is made to be watched while scoffing crunchy snack foods and beer, if only because a lot of chips and beer go down on screen between bouts of telekinetic mayhem. The first thing Mona does when she escapes her blindingly bright cell is bail up the hospital’s night-duty orderly for a bag of salt and fat. And therein, perhaps, lies the moral of the story. Don’t eat junk food, kids. You’ll end up robbing the customers in strip joints and getting policemen to shoot their own knees. Which only leads to more trouble, mark my words.