Set in a fantastical version of ancient China, Monster Hunt tells the story of a bumbling small-town mayor who swallows the fertilized egg of a monster queen, becomes visibly pregnant, vomits up an vampiric creature named Wuba that looks like the adorable spawn of an octopus and a radish, and then uses martial arts to protect the baby beast from being cooked in the country’s finest restaurant.
It’s officially the highest-grossing film in Chinese history.
Let’s ignore for a moment that officially is the operative word in that sentence. Let’s ignore the fact that government-imposed quotas limit Hollywood blockbusters to 30-day screening runs, or that the film’s distributor has been widely accused of fudging the box office receipts to an extent that would make Bernie Madoff blush. Those slippery details still do little to explain why a juggernaut that’s earned nearly $400 million at its native box office alone is arriving in American theaters with all the fanfare of a mumblecore dramedy. Released in the United States by small media distributor FilmRise, Monster Hunt is only opening on two screens in New York City, both of which are typically reserved for arthouse fare. In most cities, it’s not opening at all.
Monster Hunt is a deliriously bizarre experience, even for Western viewers weaned on Asian cinema, but that doesn’t mean the world’s two biggest box offices cater to irreconcilably different audiences. On the contrary, the second- and third-highest grossing films in Chinese history are Furious 7 and Transformers: Age of Extinction, so the difficulty in selling domestic audiences on foreign spectacles is a one-way street. Hollywood has always fancied itself as an export-only business, but as international box offices continue to boom (in 2014, China erected an average of 22 new screens every day), that self-imposed prerogative looks increasingly like xenophobia. Each year, local blockbusters become huge hits in their native countries and never see the light of day in the United States, where plenty of multiplexes are simultaneously playing the same crappy domestic flick on eight separate screens.
There’s no reason, afforded the same marketing push as, say, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, Monster Hunt can’t compete in the American marketplace. The U.S. version of this live-action and animated adventure dispenses with subtitles in favor of a kid-friendly English-language dub, and what the movie lacks in brand recognition, it makes up for in not including chipmunks. And it’s it’s directed by a guy who’s spent the brunt of his career catering to the whims of Western audiences. A Hong Kong native, Raman Hui has worked in Hollywood since 1991, serving as an animator on broad kids fare such as Antz and Madagascar before eventually being hired to co-direct Shrek the Third. Hui’s first Chinese-language project has turned out to be one hell of a homecoming. Combining Pixar’s slapstick energy with Matthew Barney’s indifference toward narrative logic, Monster Hunt tells a story so reminiscent of a dozen Hollywood blockbusters, including Star Wars, that not even its most peculiar details are enough to disguise its fundamental familiarity.
Once upon a time, the prologue insists in hurried voice-over narration, humans co-existed peacefully with monsters. That all changed when the humans decided that they wanted the world for themselves, and they banished the colorful creatures to the peaks of the land’s highest mountains. (If the premise sounds ripe for political symbolism, the film’s manic energy and blithely confused narrative ensure that neither audiences nor censors would be able to decode it.) Our story begins when civil war erupts amid the monster kingdom, and the pregnant monster queen—a scaly hedgehog with a blowfish’s tail and a politician’s toupee—is forced to flee into the human world with her two most trusted guards in order to escape the coup that has claimed her throne. Also, there’s a prophecy that her child will be Monster Jesus or something, but there’s only so much you can glean from one tossed-off line of narration.
Meanwhile, down below, unassuming dweeb Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) is busy being a more explicitly uncool Luke Skywalker—in Mayor Song’s own words, his three favorite hobbies are “cooking, sewing, and cooking while sewing.” It’s hardly a surprise when a beautiful amateur monster hunter named Hua Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) erupts through Song’s front door in pursuit of a royal fugitive. (It’s likewise hardly a surprise when Song is revealed to be the latest in a long line of legendary heroes.) You all know where the story goes from there: The monster queen deposits her crown jewel in Song’s mouth for safekeeping, and Hua decides to escort the hapless chump to a bad guy who’s willing to pay a premium for the monster growing in his belly. The only problem: When Wuba is born, both accidental human caretakers are completely smitten with him/her/it. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a blood-sucking four-legged radish?
The movie that follows is wholly unremarkable, but that hardly seems relevant in a world where Minions raked in more than a billion dollars. Mercifully, Monster Hunt isn’t nearly as shameless in its attempt to disguise its creative deficiencies behind a veil of cuteness, though it does feature tubby little fish things singing an insidiously catchy musical number and a cameo from a pug wearing a silk robe. But the the monsters themselves are consistently appealing, in no small part because they can take almost any conceivable form, from giant demons to sentient chairs.
The plot is too erratic and incoherent to follow, but the constant barrage of noises and colors is more than enough to keep kids entertained. Even the senselessness of the story eventually becomes endearing in its own right, in much the same way as your eye eventually adjusts to how garishly incongruous the animated monsters appear against live-action backdrops. Monster Hunt isn’t great, but I assure you that it’s good enough for a country where Hotel Transylvania 2 was a hit.
So what can Hollywood learn from its inability to profit from a proven international hit? It only has itself to blame. Stateside distribution companies have never given foreign blockbusters a fighting chance to flourish, so it was only a matter of time before a lack of opportunity was mistaken for the audience’s lack of interest. The overwhelming whiteness of American blockbusters has made things even worse, further accentuating the misperception that films such as Monster Hunt are only palatable to a niche, racially predetermined audience. But as China prepares to overtake America as the biggest box office in the world, American studios might want to pay closer attention to what plays well over there. It won’t be long before the people Hollywood has most taken for granted become the people it most needs to please.