Monster Hunt (Zhuo yao ji)
China/Hong Kong (2015) Dir. Raman Hui
In what must be a conclusive sign that China’s desire to rival Hollywood on the international film front is practically complete, this family friendly, CGI fantasy is the highest grossing film in Chinese history. Despite setbacks, including reshoots following the firing of the original male lead, the eventual budget of US $56 million was recouped and then some, with current takings standing at almost US $385 million!
Set in ancient China, the world was once inhabited by both humans and monsters until humanity decided to exile the monsters to their own world. A civil war later broke out and the Monster King was killed while the pregnant Queen escaped into the human world with two retainers Zhugao (Eric Tsang) and Fat Ying (Sandra Ng), the latter taking human form.
In Yongning village, the inept young mayor Song Tianyin (Jing Boran), son of a legendary monster hunter, runs a small restaurant at which the fugitive monsters arrive at. With a bounty on the unborn baby’s head, a second-level monster hunter Huo Xiaolan (Baihe Bai) has tracked them down and launches an attack, during which the Queen passes her egg into Tianyin, meaning he is now pregnant with the fated monster baby!
That only covers part of the story with plenty more to come, which gives some idea of the ambition behind this film. The main motive however would appear to be global cinematic domination as this is one of the most universally mainstream films to come out of China for quite some time, possibly even ever.
Another glaring sign of this is the involvement of director Raman Hui, who is credited with being the “Creator of Shrek” in Chinese publicity materials, an egregious and mendacious boast as Hui was a supervising animator on the first two Shrek films and assistant director on the third. However spurious his credentials may be, Hui did dream this idea up for an all CGI film but his Chinese producer wasn’t confident with animation, so the live action/animation hybrid was the compromise.
While Hui may have learned about the production side from his time at Dreamworks, it seems the storytelling side didn’t quite filter through as the script is laden with a wealth of fertile material which has been clumsily crammed into 110 minutes. That said, it is aimed at the family market so overwhelming younger brains too much is likely to diminish their enjoyment of the fun bits – and Monster Hunt is certainly a lot of fun.
One underdeveloped character is the nominal antagonist Ge Qianhu (Wallace Chung). As the former head of now defunct the Monster Hunt Bureau, Ge is aware of the turmoil the new baby will bring the monster world thus puts the bounty on its head, expecting a revival for the Bureau. This is all we learn about Ge until the final act which offers some answers to questions we have had little reason to actually ask.
Similarly the recurring supporting cast suffer from being denied even a sliver of helpful exposition to help flesh their characters out, notably veteran monster hunter Luo Gang (Jiang Wu) who is greedy for the bounty and offers – and is refused – to team up with Huo. Luo shows up for the odd fight but his character remains dubious. There is also Tianyin’s scatty grandmother (Elaine Jin), who can’t even recognise her own kin, even when stood next to Huo but she does provide some enjoyable comic relief.
Lacking a cohesive overarching plot, the film plays out in episodic form of comedic or action heavy skeins to endear us to the future monster king, who Tianyin names Huba, and witness the predictable romance blossom between Tainyin and Huo. Huba’s birth scene involves some comic silliness as Huo tires to disguise the fact a man is about to bring a monster into the world that resembles a parsnip with four arms.
Huba is an adorable bundle of cute, with beautifully observed facial expressions and physical reactions lifted from a real baby, although his penchant for drinking blood and being naughty makes him a bit of a handful. His design and that of the other monsters is more rooted in the Asian idea of supernatural beasties which will look curious to international eyes, but Huba’s infectious personality wins over more than just Tianyin and Huo.
The film’s finale is crescendo of capricious comedy and fantasy martial arts mayhem born out of a tightly wound dramatic prelude that will have youngsters biting their nails. It’s all CGI based as you might expect and while it won’t challenge Hollywood’s high standards it is a vast improvement on previous efforts and is great to look at.
Hui’s feature length debut exposes his lack of experience tackling a project of this magnitude but he shows promise, keeping up a steady pace despite the erratic narrative, knowing rather instinctively the right time to introduce humour or a fight scene. Hui also manages to coax fun performances from both the real and animated cast, revealing some charisma from all of them.
Jing Boran and Baihe Bai are up and comers who acquit themselves rather well in their prominent roles, backed up by enjoyable cameos from the supporting big names. Sandra Ng and Eric Tsang or on typical comic form while Tang Wei is superbly kooky, if underused, as a devious pawn broker and Yao Chen is a hoot as the heartless and vain head chef.
The film ends with a tease that Monster Hunt could become a potential franchise – Huba has huge marketing and merchandise potential – yet its success has yet to yield plans for a sequel. Regardless, this is a delightfully joyous if flawed outing that will keep the kids quiet while possess enough charm to appease the more cynical adults watching.
Whether a mainstream international audience will take to it remains to be seen but this is arguably the best attempt China has made thus far to crack this market.