Breaking domestic records (albeit in controversial fashion, too complicated to go into here) on its 2015 release to become the then highest grossing film in Chinese cinema history, Raman Hui’s debut children’s feature (having helmed shorts in the Shrek and Kung Fu Panda franchises) arrives on Blu-ray and DVD to test Western audiences with its very idiosyncratic Asian stylings.
Jing Boran is Tianyin, ineffectual mayor of a tiny village near the border of the mountain region where mankind has banished the monsters from which they have appropriated the Earth. When his barely-patronised restaurant is visited by both an eccentric couple and a rather dashing young lady, Tianyin becomes entangled in a scenario that has parallels with his father’s disappearance, a hero of the Monster Hunt Bureau who patrols the borderlands keeping mankind free of the vanquished creatures. It seems that after several years of peace, the live-action world is about to be visited by animated beasts once again…
That’s just the premise; the way the plot develops is as singular as the film’s character designs - and if you think you can face all-singing all-dancing trolls, pregnant principal men and enormous dragons zipped up inside regular-sized human skin-suits, Monster Hunt could be just your thing. If that all sounds rather more grown-up than a film which purports to be Hong Kong’s answer to Shrek, then that’s just an example of how sensibilities differ from one continent to another. This is a PG film (reclassified 12 for home video) featuring literal bone-crunching violence alongside impossibly cute character designs, with plenty of visceral fight sequences and some pretty broad comedy.
It’s the pairing of Jing and Bai Baihe as young would-be monster hunter Xiaolan that makes the admittedly rather overlong film such an effortless watch. Despite his clumsiness and her initially sullen attitude, they each manage to be both endearing and sexy, and the chemistry between them is palpable. The rest of the characters, often crudely drawn, are equally agreeable, and even without the monsters, your attention would be held.
But those monsters. Dropped into some stunning cinematography, the designs are worlds away from what we in the West might produce, so initially, there’s a sense of dislocation in seeing them. But they grow on you, if you allow them, such that after a while you’re treating them almost as you would any of the other characters.
Younger children especially might struggle with the pace of the subtitles, and older ones with the overabundance of cuteness, but those who manage to make it through the cultural differences will find Monster Hunt a charming, emotionally engaging and moreover intelligent film, one which will handsomely repay their suspension of some admittedly quite wilful disbelief. Extras: trailer, extremely brief making of.
MONSTER HUNT (ZHUO YAO JI) / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: RAMAN HUI / SCREENPLAY: ALAN YUEN / STARRING: BAIHE BAI, BORAN JING, WU JIANG / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 29TH