Margate-born Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s third feature, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, is a perfect complement to her directorial debut, the black-and-white vampire revenge film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Offering a similar subversion of genre, it’s a fantasy thriller grounded in the horrors of reality, where complex mental health problems are minimised to infographics on hospital leaflets, and sex workers are abused by male customers.
Historically, female characters in horror have often been underwritten or reduced to two-dimensional tropes, such as the ‘disposable’ sex worker whose character arc lies in her inevitable death, or the onryo-type antagonist from Japanese horrors like The Grudge (2004), who seek vengeance against the men who wronged them. In Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, Amirpour experiments with this latter archetype by allowing the audience to befriend the ghostly figure with the long black hair.
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Paying homage to the psychiatric hospital setting used in horror films like Bad Dreams (1988) and Gothika (2003), the film opens in a cold and clinical hospital room, with the awakening of psychokinetic 22-year-old Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo), who has been imprisoned and abused by nurses and a poor welfare system for the last decade. A gruesome, bloody attack on her attendants using a pair of nail scissors ensues, with dolly shots, claustrophobic camera angles and pulsating electronic music creating an edgy, eerie tone.
Mona Lisa uses her powers – the ability to control people’s movements and inflict torturous pain with her mind – to flee from the lifeless hospital to the animated streets of New Orleans, which she explores dressed in a ‘RAVE TO THE GRAVE’ T-shirt and a pair of purple-star-shaped party glasses. Along the way, she meets stripper and irresponsible mother Bonnie (Kate Hudson), whose credible performance has shades of Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers (2019). Contrary to the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ trope, Bonnie lacks the empathy to properly care for her precocious 10-year-old son Charlie (Evan Whitten) and exploits Mona Lisa to rinse the pockets of sleazy male customers at the strip club.
Amirpour examines Bonnie’s feelings of defencelessness through her puppet-like control of Mona. Mirroring the behaviour of coercive customers within the sex work industry, Bonnie projects her desire to regain control when she takes advantage of Mona’s naivety for her own financial and cathartic gain. Showering Mona with (conditional) kindness and protection, Bonnie convinces Mona to use her telekinetic powers to rob unsuspecting strangers at ATMs. Delicately balancing absurdity (through Mona’s fantastical ability to control other people’s bodies) with authenticity (through the ugly reality of sex workers’ lives), Amirpour explores how power and control prove illusory when underpinned by financial struggles – a theme of third-wave feminism.
Like her debut film, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is anything but minimalist in its filmmaking, incorporating disorientating tracking shots whenever Mona uses her powers, erratic perspective changes and jump cuts. Accompanied by Daniele Luppi’s rousing dubstep soundtrack, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski’s images capture the carefree, electric atmosphere of an underground rave and bustling nightlife strip. The audience is immersed into the restless city, a world characterised by neon, flashing strip-club signs, walls plastered in striking graffiti, and the psychedelic imagery of mushrooms and aliens found in the apartment belonging to Fuzz (Ed Skrein), the DJ who is surprisingly respectful in his attempts to seduce Mona.
Much of the film’s strength lies in the casting of Jeon Jong-seo as Mona Lisa. Despite scenes occasionally overwhelmed by visual and sound bombardment, Jeon’s poised performance is powerful enough to avoid drowning in the technical chaos. Caricatures like the group of hipster stoners or the emo heavy metal fans Mona meets at the beginning of the film create a sense of exaggeration that highlights Mona’s unworldly presence. The film’s embrace of silliness and mania allows the audience to revel in the madness alongside the characters.
With Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, Amirpour bounces back from the misfire of her second feature, The Bad Batch (2016), proving her ability to craft a story that has both substance as well as unmistakable style. Each frame is saturated with energy and colour. This supernatural story of a woman mistreated by society proves as wildly entertaining as it is anxiety inducing.
About the LFF Critics Mentorship Scheme
Acknowledging a damaging lack of diversity in film criticism, exacerbated by a lack of opportunities for emerging critics to gain experience and have meaningful engagement with publications, the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme returned for a fourth year at the festival, giving a meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers.
In the aftermath of last year’s global uprisings in protest of systemic racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, now more than ever there is still the need for more tangible actions to be taken in response to racial inequality in the film industry. We are looking at how we can better serve not only Black writers, but also writers from other underrepresented communities by offering mentorship that can pave the way to future opportunities for paid work in the media.
This year, we offered the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme to eight mentees, with guaranteed spaces for Black writers and writers who have a disability, impairment, learning difference or long term condition.
The mentees were invited to experience the BFI London Film Festival as an accredited press delegate with an intensive programme over the first six days of the festival. Journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, Akua Gyamfi and journalist, former Empire Magazine editor-in-chief and author Terri White were overall mentors to each of the participants who were also individually paired with a mentor from each media partner to support them and produce work. They also had the opportunity to pitch a festival comment piece or review to for the BFI website.