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Just a few months ago, it’s unlikely that people outside of China would have heard of director Raman Hui. But now that his fantasy adventure Monster Hunt has earned more than $380 million at the box office, the world has taken notice. The film — about a baby monster raised by humans in medieval China — is the biggest movie ever released in his country, recently topping Universal’s Furious 7. “I thought I was making a small movie in China, but the news made it all the way back to Hollywood,” says Hui, recounting the call he received from his former boss at DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who rang to congratulate him on Monster Hunt‘s success (Hui co-directed 2007’s Shrek the Third for DWA). Hui, named director of the year at Hong Kong’s annual CineAsia conference, talked to THR about his film’s unexpected success.
How did the film come about?
I started talking to Bill Kong of Edko films in 2005. We talked about me coming back [from Hollywood] to make an animated movie — he just said no (laughs). He hadn’t produced animated movies before. But in 2008, he came to me about a live action film mixed with CGI. I told him I hadn’t done live action before, but it was mix of both of our skills. So we started talking about the possibility of bringing in some comic book IP to make into a movie. Bill introduced me to writer Alan Yuen to see if we could come up with something.
What was the inspiration for Monster Hunt?
I always wanted to do something with Chinese style monsters. American monsters are scary monsters, but I didn’t want to make a scary movie. I wanted to do something more family-friendly. We took inspiration from an old Chinese book, the title is roughly translated as “Mountain Ocean Script.” It’s a weird book from old China, a bit like Nat Geo with descriptions of monsters living in the mountains. I kind of based the monsters on the descriptions in that book.
What early challenges did you face?
Bill took the first draft of the script to a lot of his friends in the film industry and all the feedback was that it had potential but it would be too tough to make, forget about it. We were asking for a lot of visual effects, a lot of interaction between humans and monsters. I’ll admit we got a little discouraged
Even after we made it, we had trouble selling it. People were asking how do you categorize this? It’s not something people found familiar, it wasn’t famous IP either, it was an original story. We also had lots of questions over the title, people were asking was it a horror movie? The initial confusion made me worried.
When did you realize you may have a hit on your hands?
We started doing roadshows very early, and pushing the idea it wasn’t a horror movie. I remember my first screening in Xian in western China, we screened it to 1000 students. And they were laughing and clapping.
But the success was a complete surprise. Before Monster Hunt came out, the projection for total box office was going to be around RMB 400 million ($64.41 million). With the budget and the advertising costs we were looking at losing money. I was even worried that it wouldn’t make the projection.
And then, on the first day it made RMB 100 million ($16 million) in half a day, I was just shocked.
Why do you think Monster Hunt became such a hit?
When we took the movie on the roadshow we had young people, students at the beginning but as word got out we started to see the audience change, with young couples and older people coming along. What really touched me at the end during the roadshow, we saw people over 60 showing up. I read stories about young people taking their parents and grandparents. Everyone feels like the movie was made for them, it really touched every generation.
But its crossed over into a pop cultural phenomenon right?
The pop culture phenomenon has been shocking, as you can’t plan or predict that. I feel so lucky. Wuba has become very popular. I’ve seen lots of pirate advertising, people using images and characters from the film without permission. If you go to Taobao, which is like a Chinese version of eBay, you can find so many fake stuffed Wuba online. We have to look at the piracy as a compliment, otherwise you go crazy
Were you prepared for this response?
Because we were rushing to get the movie done, we didn’t really have the time to plan toys and spinoffs, and also of course we didn’t anticipate the response. After people watched the movie, people were asking “where can we buy the toys?” We couldn’t answer, we didn’t have anything. We couldn’t say don’t buy the fakes as we didn’t have the authentic ones ready.
What does the success of Monster Hunt mean for Chinese cinema in the short and medium term?
It shows that Chinese audiences are open to new things. China has made lots of fantasy films before but none that were really family orientated. Now there may be a trend to make these type of films.
After huge success in China, are you taking Monster Hunt to Europe and the U.S.?
Right now, it’s showing in Singapore and Malaysia. We don’t have plans to show it in US or Europe yet. We are still thinking about how we distribute it. If we do take it there, we might need to think about making some adjustments. When we made the film we made it for a Chinese speaking audience, there are jokes in the movie I know Americans won’t understand, but there are universal jokes.
I haven’t looked at the movie from an American point of view yet, but I probably should do that soon. A big part of the story is universal, after all a guy getting pregnant and giving birth is funny to anyone.
And there’s a sequel in the works surely?
We haven’t had time to think about a sequel, but when we started the roadshows people started asking when can we see the sequel, they didn’t even ask if, but when. We need time to think about and prepare, its become a phenomenon and people feel like they haven’t seen enough.
Also, I’ll tell everybody involved with the film “You didn’t listen to me the first time, but next time we’ll have the toys ready!”
What does it mean to you to be honored at CineAsia?
This award actually belongs to the cast and crew that helped so tremendously to make this dream come true. I am extremely lucky to have this opportunity to work with Bill Kong and this amazing, fun group of talents. They have taught me and coached me with great patience throughout the whole process. This award also belongs to the audience who had shown their love and support for Monster Hunt. I am so honored to be part of this.
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