In an incidental cultural exchange of sorts, the top-grossing movie in Chinese history is opening in America just weeks after the United States’ box office champion, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, bowed to big numbers in China. And while China’s Monster Hunt isn’t being released in the U.S. with the same trans-Pacific fanfare or marketing muscle as Disney’s juggernaut (it has no official music video, for starters), its massive appeal in the world’s most populous country — and second-biggest movie market — makes it a landmark film that American audiences should understand. The future of commercial world cinema may just be a giggly, four-armed radish monster.
Monster Hunt, directed by Hong Kong-born animation vet and Shrek the Third co-director Raman Hui, shocked observers by becoming China’s all-time biggest domestic earner in just two weeks after its release in July. An even more significant accomplishment came a few months later, when it overtook Furious 7 to become the country’s biggest overall hit. A film that had been in the works on and off since 2009, it presents a world stocked with CGI-animated monsters living side-by-side with humans (though not always peacefully); for American viewers, a useful comparison might be a live-action Pokemon, set in medieval China, thanks to its intermingling of cartoonishly comedic creatures and destiny-chasing men and women.
Hui and screenwriter Alan Yuen, who were introduced by producer Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), took inspiration from the ancient Chinese text Classic of Mountains and Seas, which was sort of a field guide to mythical creatures. The story, which Hui and Yuen concocted on their own, centers on warring factions of monsters and the human hunters that seek to trap them.
A series of chases and mistakes forces a bumbling local human mayor to ingest an egg that contains the future monster king; after he “births” it (via his mouth), the pair go on an epic and often slapstick adventure with a warrior who doubles as the mayor’s ass-kicking love interest, flipping a traditional on-screen relationship on its head. It’s a classic hero’s journey infused with Chinese mythos, martial arts, and Minions married in a charming and heart-warming adventure.
“We were both interested in making something different and reinventing how people portray monsters in China,” Hui told Yahoo Movies. “Most of the time, when they make monster movies in China, they are just human. They put some makeup on [the actors’] faces and add a pointy nose. They don’t really do monsters like Hollywood does. I wanted to do something that was different, so it wasn’t just monsters that came out and scared people. I wanted to make it more like monsters with personalities.”
The simplicity of classic Chinese monster movies can be attributed to the film industry’s intermittent growth in the Communist country, which restricted filmmakers at various points according to political guidelines. The industry has boomed since the late ’90s, and the rapid rise of its digital effects studios made it possible for Hui get the CGI monsters made locally. After conferring with ILM, the effects industry leader in the America, Hui was referred to a VFX company in China called Base FX. ILM has been outsourcing work there for years — opened in 2006, its recent credits include Jurassic World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Star Trek Into Darkness — and they were eager to develop the look of the monsters.
The most notable creation is Wuba, the little monster king who looks a whole lot like a giggly, four-armed radish. When the trailer reached American audiences, many viewers were confounded by its appearance, snickering at a blockbuster with a root vegetable at its center. Hui notes that they did, in fact, realize that the film’s MacGuffin looks like a radish, and Monster Hunt is actually littered with references to the resemblance.
“When we designed it, we thought it was so cute, and it’s a bit different than a lot of the monsters we’d seen,” Hui said, laughing. “And then one day I went to the market and I saw a fat radish and I thought, that looks like Wuba. And then we started integrating that idea into the movie.”
As it would turn out, the groundbreaking CGI was actually one of the easiest parts of the Monster Hunt production. Hui’s film felt the full force of the government’s heavy hand in the film industry, which ended up shaping the fate of Monster Hunt considerably.
Hui originally cast the popular Taiwanese actor Kai Ko as Song Tianyin, the protagonist-chef, and they had completed about 75% of the film when Ko was arrested on drug charges. It was just possession of marijuana, but the government — which helps decides which films get shown nationwide — often puts a hold on movies starring actors who have committed moral and/or legal transgressions. And so, thanks to that very real threat, Hui was forced to re-shoot much of the movie, which required re-casting Song (he chose singer Jing Boran) and recalling his crew to rebuild entire sets.
“It was a big challenge, because this was my first time shooting a live-action movie, and on top of that I had to shoot a lot of it twice. It was a tough experience,” he recalled. “The most difficult part was, because we were into special effects already, there were a lot of shots where we had to go back and match the special effects that we had done. For those shots, it was harder to shoot because the actor had to match what the effects company had done, and they couldn’t see it. We had to look at the screen and judge, no, you have to move more to the left and move faster; otherwise you won’t be able to match the monster.”
Raman Hui, Wallace Chung, Wuba, Jing Boran and Bai Baihe (Getty)
Monster Hunt opened in July with an extensive roadshow across China, a strategy used sparingly here (unless you’re Quentin Tarantino) but frequently in the sprawling, and in many ways still developing, nation across the Pacific.
“In the U.S., you do the premiere and maybe a special screening and that’s it,” he said. “In China, we had to travel to different parts of China, because there are so many different areas, and the cultures are a little bit different. So it made sense for us to go to different parts of China to make them aware of the movie.”
Its massive success was something of a surprise, fueled by word of mouth that was reflected in the growing and diversifying crowds that showed up as the roadshow wore on; twenty-somethings were followed by kids and then seniors, Hui recalled. After 58 days, the film set a record for biggest box office of all-time in China, foreign imports included, as it crawled past the just-crowned Furious 7.
As much as the government’s involvement may have set it behind during productions, there have been allegations that its interference helped goose the final tally, which hit $382 million. Distributor Edko Films admitted to holding “public welfare screenings” — a common practice in which free tickets are handed out to workers and families — and there were accusations that movie theaters were listing “sold out” showings of Monster Hunt to empty theaters in the middle of the night, in order to run up the tally and help a Chinese movie reclaim the nation’s overall box office crown.
Hui, for his part, says he knows nothing about the allegations of the goosed totals (which plague the Chinese box office in general), and defended the various marketing methods used to turn out audiences.
“A lot of people are doing the same thing,” he said. “I don’t know if they do it in the U.S. It’s special promotions that encourage people to watch the movie. Sometimes they get a discount, or you work with different websites and they have coupons. I’m not an expert on that. All I know is that we make the movie and then people come watch the movie.”
Regardless of any shenanigans at the box office, record or no record, it’s clear that Monster Hunt has connected with audiences in a way that would have any Hollywood studio cheering. The co-dependence of China and the film industry is ever-deepening; Legendary, the company behind the new Godzilla films and other blockbusters, was just bought by the Chinese company Wanda, which already owns the AMC theater chain, America’s biggest. And given the endless construction of theater screens in China, Hollywood knows that the country will soon overtake America as the biggest movie market in the world. That makes Hui’s expertise in reaching the Chinese market very in-demand, but his advice is relatively basic.
“I think right now, when they see something they can connect to, they respond,” Hui said. “I think for Hollywood, you have to make that connection with the Chinese audience. They have to feel like the movies are made for them.“
And China is also learning from Hollywood: Wuba has become a merchandising hit, and there are already plans to make a Monster Hunt sequel.
Monster Hunt hits theaters and VOD in the US on Friday.
Watch the trailer for ‘Monster Hunt’ below: