Monster Hunt opens with a history lesson. Years ago, monsters and humans went to war, and the humans won. Monsters were driven out of human territory, and then years later the monsters started fighting among themselves. The pregnant queen of the monsters escapes to the human world, fleeing from those that mean to do her harm. She ends up in the village of Song Tianyin (Jing Boran), a hapless mayor who doesn’t have much of a taste for adventure. And soon enough, Song Tianyin is running for his life as he unwittingly becomes the protector of a monster prince.
There’s a lot more going on here than that synopsis might suggest. This film is clearly formulated to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. To this end, the film really tries to span genres and ideas. So there is a smidgen of a romantic subplot between Song and level two monster hunter Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe). There is a lot of comedy featuring the queen’s monster servants, who happen to be disguised as humans. There are twists and turns regarding the history of Song’s family. There is a measure of drama in Song’s developing relationship with Wuba, his little monster ward.
And then there is the vast conspiracy that suddenly makes up the third act of the film. To say that this film is busy is an understatement. It hasn’t even been mentioned that this film will occasionally take a break for a musical sequence. Yes, Monster Hunt has songs in it. Predictably, this does not go very well for the movie as a whole. There are some interesting ideas here and there, but the movie is just too unfocused to really work. Its elements are at times so disparate that it ends up undermining the themes.
The film just clashes with itself endlessly. It veers wildly between sincere drama and ridiculous comedy. This is most easily seen in its treatment of the monsters. In this film, they are an oppressed minority suffering from the subjugation of tyrants. Yet, they are also comedic relief. It can be a really strange for a film to play at deep themes of equality when it is simultaneously portraying their suffering as a joke. The movie just seems to exhibit poor judgment in this regard. There are horrific scenes of monsters being chopped up and served as food that are played as broad comedy. It’s like the movie doesn’t really know what it wants the audience to feel.
There are some bits that work. The action is mostly serviceable, if a little too reliant on clunky wirework and effects. The design of the monsters isn’t very appealing, but it works well enough for the film’s goals. Helping the film stay watchable is a fun central performance from Jing Boran. The role doesn’t really make much sense, but Jing attacks every bit of it with an admirable level of gusto. Less fun is Bai Baihe, who doesn’t really have the edge that would make the character of Huo Xiaolan more believable. Scene stealing turns from Eric Tsang, Sandra Kwan Yue Ng, and Tang Wei occasionally liven things up.
Monster Hunt is fun at times, but as a whole it is too much of a mess to really be enjoyable. The movie never really commits to anything, constantly hedging its bets by shifting tones and genres, never really finding an identity along the way. The upside to this is that the film isn’t at all like most big budget Chinese movies these days, which really have gotten pretty homogenous. It is a lot more bizarre, which in a way, makes it exciting. But that excitement dies out as it becomes clear that the movie just doesn’t know what it wants to be.