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)

Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Vivian Qu, 2017)

©22 HOURS FILMS

angels wear whiteChinese cinema has been preoccupied with stories of unfairness and systematic corruption for quite some time but they’ve rarely been as difficult to process and horribly universal as Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Jiāniánhuá). A storm of conflicting social attitudes leaves young women open to the most terrible of manipulations while well placed men are infinitely protected by a system of deference and complicity. Women must be pure, angelic and draped in neutral white – a concept so deeply entrenched that it barely needs manipulating to be used as a tool of control.

Teenage runaway Mia (Wen Qi) is working illegally at a seaside hotel. Wandering the beach before work, she’s rudely shoved out of the way by two hyperactive little girls who want to take a selfie underneath a colossal statue of Marilyn Monroe in her classic pose from the Seven Year Itch. Meanwhile, several sets of newlyweds are busy taking romantic photos in the picturesque though currently overcast coastal environment. Mia spots the girls again later when she is (illicitly) covering reception for a colleague and they’re brought in by a middle-aged man. Mia finds the man suspicious but seeing as he books two rooms lets it go. She pauses slightly when the still over excited girls order themselves a few beers, but delivers the drinks and leaves the girls to it. Remaining worried she keeps her eyes on the CCTV and eventually spots the man trying to enter the girls’ room but does nothing other than record it on her smartphone.

The two girls, Xiaowen (Zhou Meijou) and Xinxin (Jiang Xinyue), are so young they don’t even quite understand what’s happened to them except for a lingering feeling that they’ve been involved in something bad that will get them into trouble. Xiaowen, on the surface at least the more affected by the incident, has a difficult relationship with her parents which leaves her with no one to confide in and no one to defend her. Xinxin eventually tells her mother what happened and we realise the perpetrator is a police chief and the boss of Xinxin’s father who had made him a godparent as a way of currying favour at work leaving Xinxin’s mother to make the reasonable accusation that he has, in fact, sold his daughter to his boss for the prospect of career advancement. Where Xinxin’s mother is angry with her husband but apparently solicitous for her injured daughter, Xiaowen’s mother projects her own guilt for her neglectful parenting onto hers whom she slaps for apparently “slutty” behaviour, cutting her hair short like a boy’s and taking away her pretty dresses and makeup.

Sitting alone in the waiting room outside, Xinxin asks Xiaowen what a “hymen” is while her mother can be heard wailing loudly from inside the consultation room. The issue becomes less that a predatory man has caused irreparable harm to two innocent young girls, but that their honour has been destroyed along with prospects of future marriage now that they are no longer virgins. The problem is not that the girls are not believed or even that they are ignored. On the contrary, their story seems to be accepted to the point that it must be erased. The police chief himself remains unseen but his underling goes to great lengths to hush the case up, attempting to pay off Xinxin’s parents with the promise of healthy financial support on the condition that they drop the charges to avoid embarrassment to the chief but also, it is implied, to Xinxin who will avoid the social stigma of being the girl involved in the high profile rape case. Eventually reuniting with her father, Xiaowen finds a defender but even his outrage is not enough to see justice done as the full weight of a corrupt system comes together to crush his little girl for simply continuing to tell the truth.

It’s easy to ask why Mia did nothing to prevent such an obviously inappropriate situation but then again she is just a girl herself, not so much older than Xinxin and Xiaowen, and would not have been able to help beyond knocking the door to try and scare the man off. She should not have been manning reception in the first place, and is afraid of getting into trouble because she has no ID papers and is working illegally. Because of way the system works in China, Mia would need to go back to her home town get a genuine ID card which she seems reluctant to do leaving her open to multiple kinds of exploitation as she considers the best way to buy a fake one that will allow her to continue working in more legitimate businesses. Her life has been hard and she has come regard compassion as a weakness.

Mia also has to put up with the worrying advances from her friend and big sister figure Lily’s (Peng Jing) boyfriend, Jian (Wang Yuexin), who openly asks if she’s a virgin because he knows people who will pay good money for that kind of thing. Even Lily who seems more worldly wise is not immune to Jian’s heartlessness, later coming into work with rope burns on her wrists and dark glasses to hide a black eye. Before returning to her home village, Lily visits a clinic for painful surgery to reconstruct her hymen so that she can still get married in overly conservative China.

The statue of Marilyn Monroe seems incongruous enough but speaks to all of those same double standards which continue to disrupt the lives of these young women as she girlishly pushes down the skirt on her pure white dress, awkwardly posed on her matching bright white heels. Marilyn is sexualised innocence at its most uncomfortable. The only real defendant the girls have is a dogged lawyer who treats them with kindness, listening to their story with patience and respect in an attempt to uncover the real truth aside from what anyone may want to hear to think they are supposed to say.

Asked by an almost outsmarted policeman why she can’t find something more productive to do, the lawyer replies that there are simply “too many of these kinds of cases”. “Justice” remains a hollow ideal, an essentially fake construct designed to maintain the position of the powerful rather than protect the weak. Unrelentingly bleak but with the faintest glimmers of hope offered by Mia’s final decision, the female solidarity of the determined lawyer, and the newly rediscovered relationship of Xiaowen and her dad, Angels Wear White is a necessarily difficult and challenging piece but one which arrives at just the right time trailing a series of uncomfortable in its wake.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Clip (Mandarin with English subtitles)