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The subject of chatter for its generous $40 million budget as much as for replacing original leading man Kai Ko after his arrest on drug charges with Jackie Chan’s son in 2014, artist and animator Raman Hui’s partly animated, largely live-action fantasy Monster Hunt hits screens just in time for school holiday breaks but in competition with glossy Hollywood juggernauts. The North American-educated and trained Hui may be making his directorial debut, but he’s no stranger to animated entertainment, having put considerable work into popular ’toons like Shrek, Antz and Madagascar. The result is a film whose CGI looks better than expected, and which should be able to carve out a healthy niche at the box office in China and some parts of Asia, at least until Inside Out opens. Overseas success will be tougher given the glut of choices for families looking for this kind of entertainment, but given Monster Hunt’s novel setting and sprinkling of kung fu antics not completely out of the question for programmers at genre festivals and creative distributors in urban centers.
Which doesn’t mean the film is without its flaws. Monster Hunt begins in an ancient fantasy world, an Eastern Middle Earth of sorts, where monsters rule the land. Some look like stumpy dragons, some vaguely like less hirsute Monchichi (or a daikon radish as the film puts it). As the prologue tells us, humanity got tired of this and started a war with the monsters that ended with the latter driven into the far reaches of the mountains. Now, a civil war among the monsters has erupted and the pregnant monster queen flees into the land of the humans with her husband-and-wife guardians Zhugao and Pangying (Hong Kong comedy veterans Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng). As the monster conflict spills into the human realm, nearby Yongning village mayor Tianyin (Jing Boran, Rise of the Legend) stumbles upon the scrum. Even though he can hardly believe his eyes (you can tell because they bug out), the monster queen takes a shine to Tianyin. And Yongning is evidently a monster colony.
Later, the green monster hunter Xiaonan (Bai Baihe, Love is not Blind), Zhugao and Pangying, and Xiaonan’s rival hunter Luo Gan (Jiang Wu, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin) stop in Yongning, drawn to Tianyin’s home. Xiaonan and Luo, however, are bounty hunters and decidedly not part of the esteemed—and defunct—Monster Hunt Bureau, which regional warlord (maybe?) and restaurateur Ge Qianhu (Drug War’s Wallace Chung) wants to resurrect. A monster civil war is precisely what he wants as it will restore glory and bring high paying patrons to the restaurant (no, really). Soon enough a fight breaks out between the hunters and the disguised royal guard, the net result being the dying queen impregnating Tianyin with her son and heir by spitting the fetus into his stomach (do not even start with the film’s notions of female reproductive biology). Now the “parents” of the bringer of the Monsterdom Pax Romana (we are told this repeatedly, but it’s never made clear why or how the monster messiah will change his world), Tianyin and Xiaonan have to decide between saving the babe, eventually named Wuba, and giving in to their baser instincts, like selling him for profit.
Those are the most basic elements of what goes on to become a confused and confusing fantasy adventure. Co-writers Hui and Alan Yuen (director of the howler Firestorm) lay some solid foundations for Monster Hunt’s worldbuilding but never stop to ensure what they’ve created coheres, or works according to its own internal logic. Many of the parts work alone or in pairs just fine—the lucrative civil war and an outside force manipulating it, the rightful heir prophecized to save the world and the Everyman drafted to help in the quest and so on—and are classic fantasy tropes. But too many of them muck up the soup and leave viewers scratching their heads. Why is Ge keen on war if he’s just interested in fine dining? What are the rules of monster trafficking, or is the compulsive gambler Xiaonan goes to (Blackhat’s Tang Wei) in it for the mahjong? Who exactly are the warring monsters and is there really only one monster zone?
Ultimately, however, Monster Hunt is simply a sentimental dollop of easily digestible moral storytelling that doesn’t even rely on fully realized characters to makes its non-threatening points (respect for community, devotion to family, tolerance of the other). Tianyin’s lovable bumbler falls on the irritating side more often than not, and Jing does little to convey any of the character’s moderate growth. Jiang is serviceable as the rival hunter who comes to recognize his own ignorance, but the role could easily have been excised completely. Bai is the only actor to escape relatively unscathed, though Xiaonan’s “tough girl” act is painfully familiar, and in the end she’s pleased as punch to have found a husband (but hey, she chose it, so progress!).
Visual effects by Jason H. Snell (a digital and effects artist on Elysium and Tomorrowland among others) and action choreography by Ku Huen Chiu keep the story moving at a decent clip and infuse it with a suitably fantastical tone, even if it might be a touch violent for very young children. The animation is mostly seamless, and the mixed images are above average on the CGI quality scale, though the film is blessed with an inherently otherworldly aesthetic that forgives many glitches. The central character, the animated Wuba, is a wild card that can be either endearing and cute (and primed for merchandizing) or simply creepy, depending on your tastes.
Production company: Edko Films Limited, Wanda Media Co., Dream Sky Pictures, BDI Films Inc., Edko (Beijing) Films Limited
Cast: Jing Boran, Bai Baihe, Eric Tsang, Sandra Ng, Wallace Chung, Yao Chen, Yan Ni, Tang Wei
Director: Raman Hui
Screenwriter: Alan Yuen and Raman Hui
Producer: Yee Chung Man, Bill Kong, Doris Tse Wu Huijun, Alan Yuen
Executive producer: Bill Kong, Wang Tongyuan, Sun Zhonghuai, Allen Zhu
Director of photography: Anthony Pun
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Costume designer: Yee Chung Man
Editor: Cheung Ka Fai
Music: Leon Ko
World sales: Edko Films Limited
No rating, 117 minutes
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