A runaway box office hit and veritable pop culture phenomenon, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 2015’s Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Zhuō Yāo Jì) is nothing more than a slice of family friendly entertainment in the vein of a dozen other live-action/animation hybrid fantasy films. The monsters are cute, yes, and there is enough darkness here to rival Lord of the Rings, but there’s a little more going on under the surface of this otherwise heartwarming tale of a persecuted minority and its hidden princeling. A family drama of epic proportions, Monster Hunt speaks directly to China’s left behind children and to those who, perhaps, were worried their destiny had always been misplaced.
Set sometime in the distant fantasy past, Monster Hunt takes place in a universe in which men and Monsters co-exist but, owing to their defeat in a war, the Monsters have been forced back into the forests and mountains away from humankind many of whom no longer even believe they exist. However, there is fresh strife among the Monsters forcing a pregnant Queen to flee along with her retainers, straying into the human world in hope of saving her baby. Luckily she finds herself in a small village presided over by a kindly mayor with a limp, Tianyin (Jing Boran), who is also the son of a long missing Monster Hunter but much prefers domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing to hunting Monsters. The Queen manages to “transfer” her baby to Tianyin just before she dies, leaving him quite literally holding the baby assisted only by cynical bounty hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe).
Inspired by ancient folklore, Monster Hunt plays the chosen one trope to the max as Tianyin wrestles with his destiny while the baby, a true king displaced from his throne, awaits in ignorance. Like many contemporary fantasy tales, Monster Hunt also revels in subverting genre norms with its noticeably feminised hero. Tianyin is the son of a great warrior, but it’s his grandmother who practices kung fu and goes out looking for her long lost son, while Tianyin professes his love of domesticity, staying home cooking and sewing. His simplicity and softness is contrasted with the more masculine figure of the cynical Monster Hunter Xiaolan who becomes Tianyin’s casual love interest and the putative “father” in the loose family unit they form with the tiny baby radish-like figure they eventually christen Wuba.
The formation of a family unit in itself proves a problematic development for both Tianyin and Xiaolan who have both been abandoned by their own families and left to fend for themselves (with almost opposite results). Resentful at having been cast out by his apparently “heroic” father, Tianyin has definite views about the nature of fatherhood and the mistakes he does not wish to repeat with his own children while Xiaolan has grown wary of forming attachments altogether and strives to remind herself that she is only looking after Wuba until he’s big enough to sell on the Monster Hunter black market. Nevertheless, the pair cannot help becoming “accidental” parents even if they must first make a mistake they later need to rectify in trying to abandon their charge for financial gain. Tianyin “repeats” the “mistake” of his own father but finally comes to understand it for what it was – a father’s sacrifice of his paternal love to keep his child safe. Something that will certainly ring true for children who may be living apart from their own parents for reasons they don’t quite understand.
Yet a fairytale darkness is never far away as Tianyin and Xiaolan consider selling off little Wuba to a dodgy mahjong obsessed Monster fence (Tang Wei) who apparently knows how valuable he is but is planning to sell him to a local restaurant anyway. Despite the fact that everyone has forgotten Monsters exist, Monster meat is a delicacy reserved for the super rich (a subtle dig at China’s eat anything that can’t run faster than you philosophy ushered in by the sight of caged monkeys at the roadside) and little Wuba does look quite like a tasty daikon radish.
Cute monsters getting chopped up and eaten may be a horror too far for sensitive young children (if it weren’t for the fact the Monsters are all inspired by veggies Monster Hunt might be the greatest proselytising mechanism for vegetarianism the world has ever seen) but rest assured, little Wuba is quite the resourceful little tyke and he does after all have a grand destiny awaiting him. A tribute to unlikely heroes, gentle men, feisty women, and atypical families, Monster Hunt is an oddly subversive family friendly adventure and one which has clearly hit its mark in capturing the hearts of a whole generation who will doubtless be excited for the further adventures of Wuba as he moves closer towards his own Messianic destiny.
International trailer (English captions)