Review: Monster Hunt
PLOT: In an ancient land where humans and monsters uneasily coexist, two humans - a bumbling villager and a skilled monster hunter - must protect a baby monster from the many factions that seek to destroy it.
REVIEW:I'll admit I was fully prepared to be annoyed by Monster Hunt, which incidentally is China's biggest theatrical hit ever. Its stills and ads made it look impossibly childish and annoying; "must be a cultural difference," I thought to myself as I (briefly) wondered how something that appeared to be so silly could climb the impressive financial heights it did. It was probably the monsters that did it: cartoony blobs that looked fully out of place in the real world they were inhabiting, with a freaky, chattering monster-baby at the center. But, you know, a book by its cover and all that... The movie turns out to be a charmingly offbeat and amusing enterprise - yes, childish and frequently cartoony - but not without a disarmingly quirky sense of humor. I can totally imagine kids eating this thing up, although the movie isn't likely to be as big of a hit stateside as it was in its native country, although that's neither here nor there.
Blending fantasy, comedy and period adventure, MONSTER HUNT doesn't go out of its way to explain itself or give much depth to its plot. Set in an unspecified time - let's just call it ancient China - it takes place in a world where humans and monsters once lived in harmony but the former (for reasons not delved into) decided to push the latter out, forcing the monsters to exist in hiding - which isn't hard for them, since one of their talents involves putting on human costumes. Some kind of civil war is brewing between the monsters, and the pregnant monster queen can stop it by birthing her little monster prince. Looking to exploit this war is a former monster hunter (Wallace Chang) who anticipates that this impending battle will create new work for his now-defunct police force. (It also turns out he likes to eat monsters, so there's that.)
Being thrown into the middle of this is small village mayor Tianyin (Jing Boran), a sweet but incompetent dope who lets the entire town walk all over him. He was entrusted with protecting the village when his father left him as a young boy, and his dreams are meager: He enjoys cooking and sewing, and that's about it. The monster queen stumbles upon his hut one day and forcibly impregnates him with her unborn baby (!), urging him to protect it with his life. She dies, but Tianyin finds assistance from a tough but beautiful monster hunter named Xialon (Bai Baihe), who at first just wants to use the sheepish villager to help her collect a bounty for the little monster inside him, but once the thing is born - out of his mouth, in a very weird and funny scene - they naturally form a makeshift family. Do they get rid of the baby monster - who whines and giggles just like a human infant - or do they take up a vow to protect it with their lives from oncoming monster hunters, rival monsters, and a restaurant that trades in sauteing monster flesh?
It's a rambling synopsis, I know, but MONSTER HUNT is a movie where the crazy ideas are delivered at high speed, and you can only hope to catch up. It feels like its plot points were cooked up by high-on-sugar adolescents, who couldn't get their ideas straight so they just dumped them all into the same narrative, not worried about whether or not any of it would make sense as long as it was fun and cool-looking. And MONSTER HUNT is sorta fun and cool-looking. It was directed by Raman Hui, who spent years as a DreamWorks animator and director (he co-directed SHREK THE THIRD) and returned to his native China to helm this, and he does so with a flair for action and absurd shenanigans. You can't say MONSTER HUNT is ever lacking for energy or something to look at, and while a more sophisticated audience might turn its nose up at the pratfalls on display - there's a lot of falling down, flying into stuff, getting smacked in the face, etc. - there's an enthusiasm inherent in the filmmaking that is hard not to appreciate. The DreamWorks influence is definitely felt throughout, too; the sensibilities are the same, as is the comedic timing and manic approach to the action. There's even an impromptu musical sequence out of nowhere!
As for the monsters themselves, well, you get used to them. They fit into the tone the movie is aiming for, so they're not necessarily meant to blend into their surroundings ala WETA's APES. In fact, they turn out to be the least interesting part of the movie; it's the actors go a long way to help selling this insanity. Bai Baihe and Jing Boran make a very likable team, and while neither of their characters offer anything new (she's the pretty tomboy trying to prove herself, he's the lovable doofus who turns out to be the savior of an entire race), there's certainly chemistry between the two. And once little monster Wuba is born, this is a bizarre trio you can root for. I'm not familiar with this cast, but a little research indicates many of the performers are quite famous in their homeland, hence the supporting roles are populated by spirited actors making the most of their bit parts. (Standouts include Elaine Jin as Tianyin's violent, slightly nuts grandmother and Jiang Wu as a determined monster hunter with a heart of gold.)
While MONSTER HUNT is "cute" first and foremost, thankfully it isn't bereft of weird ideas and darkly funny sequences. Most of the third act is set in a swanky restaurant where monsters are routinely roasted, spliced, baked and subsequently eaten; even our poor Wuba is subject to a few horrific cooking techniques, but like almost everything else in the film, these moments are played for surreal laughs - since Wuba apparently can't be killed. The fact that the villain in the movie wants to saw off this little tyke's head and eat his brains while he's alive goes a long way toward showing you that we're not in Kansas anymore. MONSTER HUNT is bonkers, and I'm grateful for that.