Monster Hunt 2
Hong Kong/China, 2018, colour, 2.35:1, 110 mins.
Director: Xu Chengyi 许诚毅 [Raman Hui].
Amiable but unremarkable follow-up retools the franchise as a CNY film, without progressing it.
Ancient China. Professional monster hunter Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and her milksop partner Song Tianyin (Jing Boran), son of a vanished monster hunter, have reluctantly released “their baby” Huba into the wild to find his own kind. (Huba is actually the son of a Monster Queen deposed during a civil war in the monster world; while dying, she implanted its foetus in Song Tianyin’s body for safe keeping, and he and Huo Xiaolan went on to raise it as if their own.) After being helped out one day by Yun Qing (Yang Youning), head of the newly re-constituted Monster Hunt Bureau, the couple visit its lavish new HQ in the mountains. While there, Huo Xiaolan gives her magic whip to the workshop master (Dong Chengpeng) for repair; his obvious liking for her makes even Song Tianyin a little jealous. Meanwhile, in Qingshui township Jin’s Bank boss Zhu Jinzhen (Li Yuchun) summons inveterate gambler and cheat Tu Sigu (Liang Chaowei) and tells him she’s holding him to a signed undertaking to marry her if he ever default on the loans she’s made him. Tu Sigu manages to wriggle out of the situation, and even borrow some more money from Zhu Jinzhen – with which he immediately starts gambling again. Meanwhile, Huo Xiaolan’s feelings for Huba have been awakened on an expedition with Yun Qing. She gets the idea that Huba – who all the time has been with Benben, Tu Sigu’s faithful monster servant – is trying to talk to her through her dreams, and she determines to track Huba down. She finally catches sight of him in Qingshui township early one morning; but Tu Sigu demands 1,000 silver taels to hand him over. Huo Xiaolan agrees to the figure and everyone goes to the Monster Hunt Bureau where Yun Qing has the money ready.
Though its strengths and weakenesses are very different from those of its record-breaking predecessor, Monster Hunt 2 捉妖记2 is about on a par overall with the earlier film and still adds up to OK, if hardly special, family entertainment. With a story that feels as if it was made up along the way, and has almost no connection with the even sprawlier “plot” of the 2015 original, MH2 is more of a pleasant diversion prior to MH3, in which all the loose ends will – presumably – be resolved in a grand finale. As such, it’s a painlesss sit, though largely thanks to a general lack of pretension that makes it difficult to dislike and performances – led by Hong Kong’s Liang Chaowei 梁朝伟 [Tony Leung Chiu-wai], turning up the comic charm as a roguish gambler – that are way superior to the slapdash script. In its first week, the film has taken over RMB1.8 billion, holding its head high among other CNY blockbusters, though whether it will beat the original’s RMB2.4 billion hawl remains to be seen.
The biggest difference from the first film (which was a summer, not a CNY, release) is that the franchise has been re-tooled into typical Lunar Holiday entertainment, with the overriding theme of family togetherness and a generally much cosier tone. Gone is the adult humour of the original film, with its monster banquet, lots of scenes of bloody slaughter, and so on. The tone is set from the off with a Bollywood-style dance number – cue lightning cameos by Hong Kong’s Wu Junru 吴君如 [Sandra Ng] and Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang], both from the first film, among the happy-clappy celebrants – and thereafter there’s none of, say, the delicious black humour provided by Mainland comedienne Yao Chen 姚晨 (as a chef) or grizzly Mainland actor Jiang Wu 姜武 (as a demon hunter) in the first film.
The main reason for watching the original was Mainland actress Bai Baihe 白百何, 33, as a feisty monster hunter with a soft maternal heart and a milksop boyfriend (convincingly played by Mainland actor-singer Jing Boran 井柏然). Bai, however, is rather sidelined here, and the script still provides no convincing reason why she puts up with her feeble partner. On a human level the film is pretty much sustained singlehandedly by Liang, as he talks himself out of one tight situation after another with buckets of charm. It’s a highly enjoyable performance by the 55-year-old actor that takes him back to the kind of light, comic roles he played in 1990s Hong Kong potboilers (and prior to that in 1980s TV), here recycled with a greater maturity.
He’s supported surprisingly well by Mainland singer-actress Li Yuchun 李宇春, 33, here casting aside her usual stern tomboy demeanour for some playful scenes as a lovelorn bank boss with an extravagant taste in black high couture. Also surprising in a supporting role is Taiwan’s Yang Youning 杨祐宁, 35, who makes a commanding job of the new head of the Monster Hunt Bureau. Less impressive is Mainland comic Dong Chengpeng 董成鹏, aka Da Peng 大鹏, in a small role as a lovestruck armourer that should be funnier than it is.
All of these supporting roles, however, can’t disguise the fact that MH2 has almost no plot, apart from Bai’s monster hunter wanting to re-find cute little CG squeezeball Huba after releasing him into the monster world at the end of the first film. (It’s left to Liang’s character, ironically the only voice of reason, to point out that her “maternal” longings don’t make any sense, as she and her boyfriend aren’t Huba’s parents at all.) One would have thought that the new team of writers for this instalment – onetime Dante Lam 林超贤 regular Wu Weilun 吴炜伦 [Jack Ng], onetime Ma Weihao 马伟豪 [Joe Ma] regular Chen Yongshen 陈咏燊, and Mainlander Su Liang 苏亮 (Lost in Hong Kong 港囧, 2015; Father and Son 父子雄兵, 2017) – could have come up with something better than a succession of knockabout scenes separated by gooey “family” stuff. The lack of any real plot doesn’t build much foundation for a finale, which is hurriedly assembled by revealing a hidden villain and then having various mountain-top battles as said villain tries to make off with Huba.
After all the VFX-laden finales that dominate most Mainland fantasies, there’s an almost small-scale, klutzy quality to MH2‘s stop-start finale which is refreshing – and even more ironic given that the background of returning director Xu Chengyi 许诚毅 [Raman Hui], the Hong Kong-born, US-based co-director of Shrek the Third (2007), is all in visual effects. It’s almost as if he’s poured all his energies into making the CGI for the monsters as smooth and “natural” as possible – to enhance their interaction with the human cast – and left the other VFX with a deliberately low-tech look that won’t get in the way of the human characters. More’s the pity, then, that his writers haven’t come up with anything very interesting for the humans to do, apart from knockabout antics.
Technical contributions by the largely same team as the first film are OK (photography) to good (costumes). Xu’s direction and framing of the live action is generally routine, with no special cinematic sense.
Presented by Wuxi Yingdu Media (CN), Dream Sky Entertainment (CN), China Film Group (CN), Edko (Beijing) Distribution (CN), Shanghai Tencent Penguin Pictures (CN), Shanghai Tao Piao Piao Movie & TV Culture (CN), Tianjin Maoyan Media (CN), Dadi Century Films (Beijing) (CN), Zhejiang Hengdian Film (CN), Khorgos Jinyi Film (CN), Tianjin 58.com Entertainment (CN), Huaxia Film Distribution (CN), Zhejiang Films & TV (Group) (CN), Edko Films (HK). Produced by Champion Star Pictures (HK).
Script: Wu Weilun [Jack Ng], Chen Yongshen, Su Liang. Photography: Pan Yaoming [Anthony Pun]. Editing: Zhang Jiahui, David Richardson. Music: Gao Shizhang [Leon Ko]. Production design: Li Jianwei, Guillaume Aretos, Taneda Yohei. Costume design: Xi Zhongwen [Yee Chung-man]. Action: Tanigaki Kenji. Visual effects: Pan Guoyu (Base Fx, Industrial Light & Magic, Original Force).
Cast: Liang Chaowei [Tony Leung Chiu-wai] (Tu Sigu), Bai Baihe (Huo Xiaolan), Jing Boran (Song Tianyin), Li Yuchun (Zhu Jinzhen), Yang Youning (Yun Qing, Monster Hunt Bureau head), Dong Chengpeng [Da Peng] (Monster Hunt Bureau workshop master), Wu Junru [Sandra Ng] (Fat Ying, dancer in opening number), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Zhugao, dancer in opening number), Huang Lei (doctor), Liu Yan (gambling-house boss-lady), Wu Mochou (Xiaobaozi), X-Nine (Yongning village youth group), Jiang Chao, Lou Yixiao, Zhang Li, Xin Yuxi.
Release: Hong Kong, 16 Feb 2018; China, 16 Feb 2018.