By Jonathan Clements.
Hapless slacker Tianyin (Jing Boran) inadvertently becomes the surrogate father of Wuba, an orphaned monster prince fated to be the ruler of his race. Accompanied by Xiaolan (Bai Baihe), a hunter initially only interested in the bounty on their companion, he runs for the big city, unaware that Wuba is wanted not only by murderous rebels of his own tribe, but also by the ruling class of China, who hope that a new-born monster messiah will prove to be the tastiest morsel at a high-class banquet.
Originally pitched as a cartoon, Raman Hui’s film demonstrates an accomplished grasp of the use of animation in special effects, integrating live-action footage with computer-generated creatures. His monsters, however, are counter-productively cute, as if not even the film-makers take their monstrousness all that seriously. The world in which they find themselves similarly lacks the grit and granularity, the lived-in sensibility of, say, Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story. With the running time of a grown-up movie, but the wit of a juvenile crowd-pleaser, it’s unclear who it’s really for. Perhaps as a prerequisite for the digital integration in most scenes, much of it is brightly lit, washing out shadows even in dingy taverns and dank dungeons. Even night scenes seem to swiftly reset themselves as daylight as soon as something needs to be done with the animated sprites.
There are vague, hand-wavy suggestions about what dynasty this is, but the film’s sense of Chineseness is oddly placeless and timeless, lifting styles and architecture from all over Chinese history. Other moments have a certain universality, notably a wandering pair of monsters disguised as an old couple, whose innocent enquiries about a human banquet have all the chills of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Childcatcher.
The class-conscious viewer might discern echoes in the film of many internal conflicts within Chinese history, in which the onward march of the Han people pushed many minority groups into the same remote mountain regions that are apparently favoured by the film’s “monsters”. Monsterhood, in this film, is a state of studied Otherness – there are, as Tianyin belatedly observes, good ones and bad ones, and that surely should transcend everybody’s differences. This ends up putting representatives from both races on both sides of the conflict, as the good Monster Hunters team up to protect their infant ward from the bad monsters who want him dead, and the bad humans who want to eat his brain.
And, strange though it may sound for a film that luxuriates in fart gags, has a man who gets his head stuck in a stinky durian fruit, and repeatedly laughs at senile dementia, it is also oddly right-on, featuring a male lead who begins as an object of ridicule in a matriarchal society, and who spends much of the film as the sidekick to his far smarter, far sassier warrior love interest. There’s also a grab-bag of songs that are partly sung in monsterese.
When I went to see the DVD man in Xi’an to get a copy of the pin-sharp Hong Kong Blu-ray of Monster Hunt, I was jetlagged enough to both forget the Chinese name of the film and the word for “fantasy” in Mandarin. So I ended up asking him if he had that “really big sci-fi film that was at the top of the box office.” When he realised what film I was talking about, he scoffed at my ignorance. “It’s not sci-fi!” he bellowed. “It’s myth.”
But Monster Hunt isn’t myth. Like Big Fish and Begonia, it claims connection to The Classic of Mountain and Seas, an ancient here-be-dragons gazetteer of faraway creatures, and indeed, it has made such a meal of this in China that the aforesaid book has been republished with fantastical illustrations by Wang Xulong. It is, in fact, more of a wuxia dreamtime – a carnivalisation of how myth might look to the Twitter generation, perhaps unsurprisingly for a director whose previous work has included Shrek the Third and Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five.
If there’s a myth attached to Monster Hunt it’s probably more important to point out its legendary stature among cinema distributors, since it became the first Chinese-made film to top the Chinese box office in the 21 years since the market was opened to foreign competition. Helped greatly by an IMAX run that made the very best of its CG animation, it briefly enjoyed a few weeks as the largest grossing Chinese film ever made, before being toppled in February 2016 by The Mermaid, itself since toppled by something else.
Critics are at a loss to explain why this particular film should have been the one to recapture the flag of Chinese distribution. A cynic might point out that by the time it was released, it was literally too big to fail, having notched up an additional US$70 million in extra costs after its original leading man, Kai Ko, was arrested in Beijing for smoking marijuana. Determined not to risk a China-wide release with a court case hanging over their hero, producers authorised the parachuting of Jing Boran into the lead role, requiring all his scenes to be reshot, along with a quarter of all the effects sequences. Effectively, the film went to market having cost double its original budget – you bet the owners were keen to keep it running longer than its rivals.
That, perhaps, might explain the other controversy over its release. By the end of its cinema run, distributors were literally giving tickets away in order to perpetuate a media narrative of full-house cinemas. The last two weeks of its “box office takings” in China, observed the National Business Daily, were almost entirely accounted for by freebies, and further digging revealed that some screenings were put on as charity events but still played to empty cinemas. Meanwhile, the Financial Times observed something even fishier – that the number of screenings reported in certain cinemas was a physical impossibility unless the film was starting once every thirty minutes in the same theatre. This is not the first time that Chinese box office figures have been suspect – Ip Man 3 infamously was accused of talking up its ticket sales as a money-laundering operation, but the sheer scale of payola underway with Monster Hunt seems quite staggering.
Hopefully, it won’t be remembered just for that. The animation work in this “live-action” film is often of a distractingly high quality, sufficient to divert one’s attention from a plot that somehow manages to be both tired and sugar-rushed at the same time. Played straight and without the effects work, it would have been forgettable kung fu hokum, but the level of animation on display suggests that there are great things ahead for Raman Hui and his team.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts. Monster Hunt is released in the UK by Manga Entertainment.