Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Raman Hui, 2015)

Monster Hunt posterA 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)

Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Xin Yukun, 2017)

wrath of silence posterNature red in tooth and claw – life in the arid Northlands of modern China is surprisingly bloody in Xin Yukun’s The Coffin in the Mountain followup, Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Bào Liè Wúshēng). The film’s Chinese release has, apparently, been indefinitely delayed for unclear reasons but it’s easy to see what might have given the censors occasion for pause in this tale of missing children, corrupt businessmen, and the relentless lusty greed of the new middle classes. A voiceless everyman forced away from his family by a series of unfortunate events, returns to look for his missing son but finds only a malevolent darkness invading the corners of his once peaceful rural mountain town.

In the winter of 2004, a small boy watches his sheep whilst building a small rock tower and drinking from his Ultraman flask. A short while later, his dad, Baomin (Song Yang), is pulled away from a fistfight at the bottom of a coal mine by a phone call from his wife informing him that their son has gone missing. Baomin drops everything and goes home but he’s still persona non grata in the small mountain village after stabbing the local chef in the eye with a lamb bone during a fight over Baomin’s refusal to sign over his land to developers hoping to open a coal mine.

Baomin’s path crosses with that of two other men, gangster-like mining magnate Chang (Jiang Wu) who has recently been “acquitted” of running illegal operations, and Chang’s lawyer, Xu (Yuan Wenkang), a conflicted single parent. Baomin and Xu are at opposite ends of China’s recently born class system – one educated, successful, and inhabiting the new pristine cities, the other literally rendered voiceless by an act of violence, poor, and living an antiquated rural life in a desert wasteland. Chang exists in the no man’s land between them as an example of the new elite – his life is one of Westernised elegance in his smart study and wood panelled drawing room with its deer heads on the walls. Yet it’s not business acumen which underpins his success but thuggery and a thorough disrespect for conventional morality.

There is a double irony in Baomin’s life in that his original objection to the coal mine has sent him straight into one. Owing vast compensation to the chef whose eye he ruined as well as needing money to pay for his sickly wife’s medical treatment, Baomin has little choice but to leave his farm and travel to a distant city where he can earn the money he needs to pay for his various responsibilities. Not only are the coal mines ripping up the landscape, they’re destroying families firstly through forced absences and secondarily through disease born of industrial pollution.

This veniality is all too plain in Chang’s ostentatious display of needless slaughter as he sits at a large dining table entirely covered in plates of raw meat ready to be sizzled in Chang’s favourite hot pots while a finely tuned slicer runs in the background churning out an endless supply of repurposed flesh. Chang’s overwhelming need for consumption is less about hunger than conquest as his hunting hobby proves but the trophies on his walls are as fake as the hairpieces which cover his receding hairline. The force which drives him is not so much need as vanity, fear, and insecurity. Desperate to be hunter and not hunted, he has abandoned all morality and will stop at nothing to ensure his place at the table is secure.

Baomin will stop at nothing until he finds his son. The film’s title, ironically enough, includes a slight pun in its first two characters which are pronounced “Bao” and “Lie” (the name of Baomin’s son) but mean “violence” and “spilt” while the characters of Baomin’s name (保民) mean protect and citizenry. Baomin is a violent man. According to his wife he was always fond of a fight even before rendering himself mute, but it has to be said that violence is, in his voiceless state, his most efficient method of communication. Flashing pictures everywhere he goes, Baomin chases visions of his son, haunted by small boys in Ultraman masks, fighting monsters far more real than the tokusatsu hero’s usual foes.

Fable-like in execution, the final revelations are heavily foreshadowed though dual meanings are plentiful as in a small boy’s innocent assumption of a classic Ultraman pose which looks eerily like something else to those with a guilty conscience, planting the seed of doubt as to whether it really was quite that innocent after all. Xin shoots with Lynchian surrealism as darkness seems to creep idly into the frame and then hover there, threatening something terrible, like the manifestation of willingly unseen truths. The rapid pace of social change has brought with it a loss of morality that endangers the foundation of society itself, sacrificing the young on the altar of greed while the state turns a blind eye to systemic corruption and cowards save their own skins rather than ease the suffering of others. Filled with a quiet rage mediated through melancholy poetry, Wrath of Silence takes a long, hard look into that creeping darkness but finds the darkness looking back with accusing eyes.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles)

 

Shock Wave (拆彈專家, Herman Yau, 2017)

shock wave posterRecent Hong Kong action cinema has not exactly been known for its hero cops. Most often, one brave and valiant officer stands up for justice when all around him are corrupt or acting in self interest rather than for the good of the people. Shock Wave (拆彈專家) sees Herman Yau reteam with veteran actor Andy Lau turning in another fine action performance at 55 years of age as a dedicated, highly skilled and righteous bomb disposal officer who becomes the target of a mad bomber after blowing his cover in an undercover operation. These are universally good cops fighting an insane terrorist whose intense desire for revenge and familial reunion is primed to reduce Hong Kong’s central infrastructure to a smoking mess.

Some years prior to the main action, J S Cheung (Andy Lau) is undercover with a gang of bomb loving bank robbers. When they decide to load up a few taxis with explosives, Cheung just can’t let innocent people and fellow officers get caught in the crossfire and so he blows his cover and tips the cops off to the weaponised motor vehicles. Head honcho of the gang, Blast (Jiang Wu), is not best pleased especially as his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi) gets himself arrested. Flash forward to the present day and Blast has come up with his plot for revenge – placing large amounts of explosives in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and taking everyone in the general area hostage until the authorities agree to release his brother and he’s satisfied himself in outwitting Cheung.

In this at least Shock Wave fits neatly into the mad bomber genre as Blast goes to great lengths to terrorise the public for irrational and entirely selfish reasons. Blast’s original twin motives centre on a need to get his brother out of prison and the need to destroy Cheung but Biao has decided one of the reasons he quite liked being in prison was that Blast wasn’t there and Cheung isn’t really interested in playing Blast’s game. Blast, as his brother points out, is someone who rarely considers the thoughts or emotions of other people, acting selfishly and assuming his own desires are the only ones which matter. This essential selfishness is echoed in a fairly subtle point about the financial impact of the tunnel crisis and how others stand to profit from it while hundreds people remain terrified and captive inside a giant tube surrounded by water which may soon collapse if Blast loses his temper.

Th mad bomber may be a cinematic staple but Shock Wave relies too heavily on familiar genre elements to make much on an impact of its own. Characterisation is often shallow in the hero cop vs insane criminal set up with supporting characters reduced to a single prominent emotion. The inevitable romantic subplot gives Cheung an emotionally fragile, recently divorced school teacher as an angelic girlfriend only to have her experience sudden qualms about getting involved with someone who does such a dangerous job.

Even if the narrative fails to impress, Yau produces an exciting visual spectacle reportedly spending vast sums of money building an exact replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Filled with explosions, gunfights, and high octane action Yau keeps the tension high by turning the dial right down as Cheung and his gang do their thing with cool, calm military precision disarming everything from C4 to unexploded World War II bombs.  At two hours, Shock Wave is pushing the ideal for an action thriller but largely makes its lengthy running time count despite a number of underdeveloped subplots.

A vehicle for Lau who also takes a producer credit, Shock Wave is defined by his performance as the dashing and heroic member of the bomb disposal squad. Jiang Wu’s mad bomber provides hearty support but is never given much to do other than emphasise his villainy with sneering taunts and occasional acts of cruelty. Cheung’s schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen, played by Song Li, is about as generic as they come seeming only to exist for the classic girlfriend in peril plot device but Song and Lau have good chemistry and the relationship does at least help to up the otherwise absent emotional content. Simply put, Shock Wave is an excuse for the ageing Lau to play the action hero once again and he plays it to the hilt. At times frustratingly formulaic, Shock Wave does manage to maintain the tension until the grippingly explosive finale whilst also paying tribute to those who run towards the crisis rather than away from it in full knowledge of the price they may pay in coming to the defence of ordinary people.


Shock Wave was the closing film of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival and will also be released in UK cinemas from 5th May.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shower (洗澡, Zhang Yang, 1999)

Shower posterChina is changing. Transforming faster than any other society at any other point in history. This brave new future, flooding in as it has across an ancient nation, has nevertheless left a few islands of dry land untouched by modern progress. Old Liu’s bathhouse is just one of these oases, far away from the big city with its frantic pace and high technology. In the city, you can step into a tiny cubicle and “undergo” a shower inside a contraption that’s just like a carwash, only for people. In Liu’s bathhouse you can relax for as long as you like, laughing and joking with old friends or just hiding out from the world.

Prodigal son Da Ming returns to this untouched relic from his past on a brief reprieve from his busy businessman life, attempting to reconnect with his distant father and younger brother, Er Ming, who has some learning difficulties. Da Ming left here for something better, he looks down on his father’s profession and its old fashioned insistence on taking one’s time, but gradually as he returns to the rhythms of his childhood the warmth of the bathhouse atmosphere begins to soak into his heart.

Most of Liu’s customers are older men who grew up in an era when going to the bathhouse was normal rather than bathing at home as younger people do. They use the bathhouse as some would use a teahouse or a bar, they spend all day there getting various treatments, racing crickets and bickering about the past. If it weren’t for the bathhouse many of these older men would have nowhere to get together. However, times have changed and even if the bathhouse were more popular with the young folk, it seems the entire block has been bought up by property developers intent on throwing up an array of tall buildings replacing the cosy, traditional atmosphere of the small town shops, restaurants and amenities which currently occupy it.

Da Ming keeps meaning to go home, he even books a return flight, but keeps putting it off. Eventually he begins to bond with his father again, going so far as climbing up to the roof to help him secure a tarpaulin during a heavy thunderstorm. He enjoys hanging out with his brother but after being away for so long has perhaps forgotten how much looking after he really needs with the consequence that Er Ming actually wanders off somewhere for the first time in his life. However, Er Ming is much more resourceful than his father had assumed and returns with a broad grin and pockets full of apples as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

In its final stretch, Shower makes a tonal shift to the arid deserts of Northern China and a story which happens to reflect the early life of Da Ming’s parents. In this dry land, water is worth more than all the gold in the world. There is an ancient custom that on the night before her wedding, each bride enjoys a hot bath – a true luxury in a place where death from thirst is a real possibility. The extreme measures her family have to go to to allow their daughter to perform this important ritual emphasise its importance as do the tears shed by the girl in question as she sinks into what is possibly the first and last time she will ever enjoy the simple pleasure of a hot bath. Water unites all things, as a TV broadcast watched by Er Ming reminds us, the elephant and the dung beetle have exactly the same dependency on water and their access to it is entirely in the hands of fate.

Liu’s bathhouse is a place of solace where men can come and talk through their troubles together. One local man has a series of marital problems with his rather feisty wife whereas another enjoys loudly singing O Sole Mio whilst having a shower but freezes up when he tries to sing on stage, and then there’s the old guys with their crickets and decades old arguments. Liu listens to them all, allowing their tensions to run away with the bathwater. The “human wash” shower cubicle might be efficient and undoubtedly useful in the quickening pace of modern life, but you go in there alone with all your thoughts and no one to gently lead you to the truths you always knew were there but were unwilling to see.

Shower is another China at the cross roads movie as older brother Da Ming represents the forward marching younger generation who’ve abandoned their old hometowns for the bright lights of the cities only to feel cheated out of something more essential. Returning home is a journey filled with ambivalence – being hit both by the backwardness of the place but also by its wholesome goodness and the warmth of community spirit. It may be too late to save the bathhouse, but that doesn’t mean all that it represents has to go with it. The future is uncertain for Da Ming and Er Ming, as it is for China itself, but if anything can hold back the erasure of centuries of culture it has to start here, with two brothers and a bathhouse, or doesn’t start anywhere at all.


Shower (洗澡, Xǐzǎo) is available on DVD in the UK from Momentum and in the US from Sony Pictures Classic.

US release trailer: