Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A Girl Escaped

Ana Lily Amirpour’s third feature film “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” is a saucy genre flick which intrigued me via its distinctive mood and style. While it is pretty simple in terms of story and characters, the movie tries to mix many different stuffs together in its colorful main background, and I observed its stylish attempt with some curiosity and amusement.

The story mainly revolves around a Korean girl named Mona Lisa Lee (Jun Jong-seo), who has been incarcerated in a mental hospital near New Orleans, Louisiana for more than 10 years due to some mental problem. She has been mostly mute and unresponsive in her safety cell, but then she somehow comes to acquire an ability of controlling minds at her will, and she soon escapes from the mental hospital without much difficulty.

Not long after she arrives in New Orleans, Mona Lisa happens to encounter Bonnie “Bonnie Belle” Hunt (Kate Hudson), a local stripper who gets herself into a minor trouble when she comes across Mona Lisa. Thanks to a little help from Mona Lisa, Bonnie is saved from that small trouble of hers, and she subsequently takes Mona Lisa to her shabby residence once she sees that she can benefit a bit from Mona Lisa’s supernatural ability.

Bonnie has lived with her young son Charlie (Evan Whitten), and Charlie is not so particularly pleased to see Mona Lisa at first, but it does not take much time for him to befriend her later. As your average lonely angry boy who has been often neglected by his mother, Charlie comes to sense similar loneliness and helplessness from Mona Lisa as they come to spend more time with each other, and she responds to him with some tender comradeship in exchange.

Meanwhile, Bonnie is mostly occupied with how she can exploit Mona Lisa’s special power for her own benefit. Because of being quite innocent, Mona Lisa lets herself manipulated by Bonnie to commit several criminal deeds. After all, there is nowhere else to go for her at present and, above all, being sent back to that mental hospital is certainly the last thing she wants right now.

Of course, the situation soon becomes more serious as they are pursued by a local police officer who had a very nasty experience during his accidental encounter with Mona Lisa. Once he gets a piece of information about Mona Lisa and Bonnie’s current criminal activity, he quickly embarks on locating them in a certain lurid area in New Orleans, and he also tries to find any possible way to protect him from Mona Lisa’s mind control ability. At one point in the middle of the story, he visits a local voodoo priestess for any potential help, and we accordingly get a little moment of amusement from that.

Around that narrative point, the movie becomes a bit more tense than before, but it still takes time in having us immersed more in its stylish ambience. Thanks to cinematographer Pawel Porgorzelski, who is mainly known for his notable collaboration with Ari Aster in “Heredity” (2018) and “Midsommar” (2019), the movie is amply packed with palpable Southern atmosphere, and Porgorzelski’s commendable visual work on the screen is often enhanced by the impressive score by Daniele Luppi, who incidentally received the Soundtrack Stars Award when the film was shown at the Venice International Film Festival two years ago.

At the center of the movie, Jun Jong-seo, a wonderful South Korean actress who has shown more of her talent and versatility since her crucial supporting role in Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” (2018), gives a strong performance to carry the film to the end. While Amirpour’s screenplay does not specify much its heroine in details, Jun fills her rather enigmatic character with enough presence and intensity, and Mona Lisa comes to as another elusive but striking heroine to compare with that vampire girl in Amirpour’s acclaimed debut feature film “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014).

Around Jun, several main cast members ably hold each own place. Although she has often unfortunately wasted her talent and star quality since her Oscar-nominated breakthrough turn in Cameron Crowe’s great film “Almost Famous” (2000), Kate Hudson demonstrates here that she is still an interesting performer to watch, and she deftly balances her character between better and worse sides without any excuse. While Craig Robinson, who can be serious enough as shown from Chad Hatigan’s little independent film “Morris from America” (2016), dials down his usual comic personality well again, Ed Skrein completely slips into his small but important supporting role, and young performer Evan Whitten is convincing in his several key scenes with Jun in the film.

In conclusion, “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” is relatively less successful than “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”, but it reminds us again that Amirpour is one of more interesting filmmakers during last several years. Yes, the movie is another usual case of “style over substance”, but I enjoyed its mood and style enough to care about its story and character, and you will not easily forget Jun’s performance in the end. As recently shown from two very different South Korean films “The Call” (2020) and “Nothing Serious” (2021), she is on the way to becoming one of the best actresses in South Korean cinema, and I sincerely hope this small oversea film will be another stepping stone for her promising acting career.

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