It's fitting that Monster Hunt 2 was slated to open on Lunar New Year. Just like the invariably sweet or deep-fried snacks being devoured at nearly every Chinese household during this festive period, Hong Kong director Raman Hui's second entry of his SFX-heavy franchise is high on sensations and low on substance. While the film is a much more powerful visual feast than the original Monster Hunt from two years ago, it offers little in terms of expanding the first film's themes or pushing the storyline significantly forward.
True to form, Hui — whose 20-year spell at DreamWorks saw him rising from an animator to co-director of Shrek the Third — has again raised the bar for Chinese animation movies with a blend of CGI and live action that's even more seamless than it was in his previous film. And he has found a multitude of ways to showcase his strengths, as he fills the film with fights, quarrels and even a Bollywood-style dance number involving a cast of both actors and animated creatures.
But all this glitter could barely conceal the film's disjointed and vacuous narrative. Hui's three screenwriters — all newcomers brought into the franchise after the departure of original screenwriter Alan Yuen — have chosen to proffer a film largely dependent on visual and verbal gags ranging from the incredible (such as weapons that could best be described as Chinese steampunk) to the inane. Incredibly, most of the latter involve Tony Leung Chiu-wai of In the Mood for Love and The Grandmaster fame.
Leaving behind the lovelorn lady's man persona he developed to perfection in his feted collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, Leung — who actually rose to prominence in the mid-1980s playing comical characters in Hong Kong TV series — went farther than his brief flirtations with comedy in 2016's See You Tomorrow. This time around, he plays a guffawing gambler who's seen, among other things, playing mahjong with a prosthetic nose and being sawed in half by a magician while wearing a tiger suit.
But these things have hardly anything to do with Monster Hunt 2's main plot — that is, the struggle for a small radishlike creature called Wuba to find his human parents. Not that all the disjointedness matters anyway: Monster Hunt 2 soared to an incredible opening-day gross of $97 million on Friday, with the number expected to rise as China's Lunar New Year holidays unfold over the next week. The film also began a day-and-date limited release in the U.S. and Canada and will bow at the Berlin Film Festival as an out-of-competition title on Sunday.
The basic premise for the Monster Hunt franchise is that the world — or at least ancient China — is a place in which human beings and monsters live in two separate realms. In the first film, the boundaries between the two broke down as a human couple was entrusted with the care of Wuba, a prince of the monster kingdom; the film ended with the "parents" sending the boy beast across the border to live with his own tribe and rediscover his destiny.
Monster Hunt 2 begins with Wuba crossing to the human world again to flee from the evil forces trying to capture him. He strikes up a friendship with Tu Sigu (Leung), a small-time rogue who earns a living for himself and his monster buddy Ben-Ben by pulling farcical scams at local gambling dens. Meanwhile, Wuba's human parents — the battle-hardened monster hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and her meek husband, Tianyin (Jing Boran) — begin to regret their decision to let the boy go. They set out to try and find their "son" with the help of Yun Qing (Yo Yang), the handsome and seemingly righteous leader of a monster hunters' guild.
Unsurprisingly, all these characters inevitably converge in a final showdown — but not before they are forced to jump through all kinds of bizarre, red-herring hoops, as Tu finds himself repeatedly bogged down by his increasingly farcical exchanges with admirers or debtors. Xiaolan, meanwhile, also becomes the object of affection from a weird weapon-maker (Da Peng).
While a lot of screen time is spent on developing these gags to comical effect, little attempt is spent on elaborating old questions that were left unanswered in the previous film or new ones that pop up this time round — specifically Wuba's identity as the savior of both monsters and humankind, and also the way the seemingly useless Tianyin, a descendant of a disappeared warrior, fits into the scheme of things.
One wonders how Hui would be able to tie up all these loose ends and possibly dig up a few more in the next film, which would conclude his trilogy: It will hardly be a surprise if backers Edko Films eventually decide to imitate the Twilight and Harry Potter series with double-volume final installments.
Technically, Monster Hunt 2 is faultless, courtesy of the work of its largely Hong Kong-based crew. It mesmerizes the viewers both with its immaculate special effects and also its impressive production design, all brought vividly to the fore by DP Anthony Pun and editors Cheung Ka-fai and David Richardson. Beyond all this, however, Monster Hunt 2 ultimately shapes up as more of a stopgap effort to showcase the franchise's possibilities and stir up interest for its grand denouement.
Production company: Edko Films
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Bai Baihe, Jing Boran, Yo Yang
Director: Raman Hui
Screenwriters: Jack Ng, Sunny Chan, Su Liang
Producers: Bill Kong, Yee Chung-man, Doris Tse
Director of photography: Anthony Pun
Production designers: Kin-Wai Lee, Guillaume Aretos, Yohei Taneda
Costume designer: Yee Chung-man
Editors: Cheung Ka-fai, David Richardson
Music: Leon Ko
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special Gala)
Sales: Edko Films