Monsters to Die For: On Monster Hunt as an Ecological Fable

Haiyan Lee

The 2015 animated feature film Monster Hunt (Zhuoyao ji) is a popcorn caper served up by a mainland-Hong Kong coproduction team led by director Raman Hui who cleverly meld the nonsensical (moleitau) conventions of Hong Kong cinema with state-of-the-art CGI technologies. It also rehashes the well-worn Hollywood motif of a bumbling everyman turned reluctant superhero. The film seems to have touched a chord with Chinese audiences: it broke numerous box office records and became the highest-grossing domestic film (though this reputation was disputed). Here, I propose to read the film as an allegory that packs a none-so-subtle ecological message: that we can learn to live with others, human as well as non-human, so long as we are imaginative enough to imagine the impossible.

The prelude of the film informs us that, once upon a time, humans and monsters (yao, goblins, ghouls, ogres) had co-inhabited the planet. But humans eventually drove the monsters into the wilderness and relied on a corps of master hunters (tianshi) to eradicate any remaining or stray monsters from the human realm. At the beginning of the story proper, a war breaks out in the monster world and the pregnant queen monster flees to a human village where she transfers her fetus to the village mayor Song Tianyin, a jittery young man who prefers cooking and sewing to martial arts training. A powerful restaurateur named Ge Qianhu gets wind of the unborn monster prince and puts out a bounty—monsters are coveted by humans as a delicacy. Two master monster-hunters, a male and a female, descend upon Tianyin’s village. Xiaolan, the female hunter, strikes a bargain with Tianyin: she will assist his escape and help him carry his pregnancy to term, whereupon she will take possession of the infant monster. Through a good deal of frenetic kungfu fighting, she manages to keep her dogged rival hunter at bay. During their journey, Tianyin gives birth to a doe-eyed and radish-shaped baby monster with a tuft of green hair and six stubby limbs. He instantly falls in love with the adorable little creature, whom he names Huba. At Xiaolan’s insistence, they sell Huba to Ge Qianhu through an intermediary. Remorse immediately seizes them and propels the half-crazed couple straight back to Ge’s palace to rescue the baby monster. Eventually, the three of them, now a tight-knit nuclear family, make it to safety. The film ends with a tear-jerker set piece whereby Huba is let go by his human parents so that he can assume his rightful place among his own kind and put his kingdom back in order. Presumably he will usher in a gentler, kinder civilization, having already been converted from a vampire’s diet to nut-popping veganism.

Critics have lauded the film for its unflinching engagement with the question of how to live with the other, here allegorized as monsters. It is not too great a stretch to include non-human animals in this category. Habitat loss may have been the root cause of the monsters’ troubles: some of them are even forced to live in disguise among humans—Tianyin belatedly realizes that his fellow villagers are all bogus humans—and run the constant risk of being sniffed out by professional hunters in the employ of the Monster Hunt Bureau. But instead of the usual cause of environmental degradation—development—the monsters are victimized by humans for a more visceral reason: they are a prized dish by dint of the putative healing powers of their flesh. Huba, being of the royal bloodline, is especially coveted by human diners. Once he has Huba in his clutch, Ge appoints a special chef to “cook” the baby monster, and gloats to his paying gourmets about the immeasurable therapeutic benefits to be garnered.

The filmmakers have taken a familiar page from the Hollywood playbook in casting the monsters as good-natured creatures for all their outlandish and at first blush frightful appearances—think of E.T., King Kong, and the garden variety monsters in Monsters Inc (2001). Huba, in particular, is an over-the-top cute thing replete with all the requisite neotenic features: large and soulful eyes, a shortened facial region, a soft and plump body, a lilting baby voice, and a playful demeanor. By contrast, the diners are greedy predators champing at the bit to partake of a legendarily cruel feast—scooping out in sashimi fashion the brains of a living and breathing creature fastened under a table with a hollow center that reveals its open skull. Huba is saved from this fate by his human parents and their helpers, including Xiaolan’s former rival. While they are at it, they also manage to free Tianyin’s fellow (monster) villagers who were rounded up by Ge’s minions and kept in the cages of his pantry-cum-prison; in the melee two human children, all trussed up and ready to be served in hotpot, also manage to slip away. The dramatic clincher, or what makes it possible to close the human-monster gap, is the in-your-face gag of male pregnancy and childbirth. What parents do not love their newborn? So what if it is the father who gives birth, and so what if the baby looks a little strange? Difference here is sublimated by unconditional parental affection, powerful enough to make a man coyly parade his swollen belly and to put a feisty tomboy in touch with her maternal instinct. And it takes only the sight of a cook slicing a radish in the marketplace to make the bereaved pair twitch in horror and simultaneously turn on their heels to rush to Huba’s rescue.

Adam Seligman and Robert Weller have argued that ritual and shared experience allow us to acknowledge boundaries, negotiate differences, and live with ambiguities, and that the increasingly diminished role of ritual and the shrinking space for shared experience in modern life do not bode well for our inexorably pluralistic present and future.[1] Pregnancy and childbearing is perhaps the strongest holdout for shared experience in our secular, atomistic existence. In this case, it is made all the more intense by being placed under perilous conditions. As Seligman and Weller note, boundaries and differences give structure to everyday life but make it difficult for us to recognize the humanity of others. When we share an experience, we conspire to bracket those differences for the time being in order to “produce an evanescent solution to a particular problem (evanescent, because it is always a particular and unique problem).”[2] Such improvisation or bricolage dispenses with a priori agreement on matters of principle or value (what they call the “notational” mode) and directs attention from shared meaning to shared usage. In the film, Tianyin and Xiaolan become so preoccupied with the challenges of being pregnant while on the run and then of protecting little Huba from all manner of dangers that they forget everything that used to matter: that the fetus and then infant is not even human, that Tianyin is a biological male, that Xiaolan is in it for the money. All the categories demarcating “us” (human, male, friend) from “them” (alien, female, enemy) are temporarily bracketed and all discomfitures are thrown to the wind as the odd couple and then the oddest stem family (the trio is joined by Tianyin’s amnesic but swashbuckling grandmother in the banquet hall fight sequence) try to shield each other and fight their way to safety. The bonds that are cemented in this intense shared experience, however, do not permanently do away with difference. Huba is still a monster and must return to his own kind. The boundaries between humans and monsters are transgressed only to be reinstated, albeit with a renewed appreciation for their lack of fixity, their potential to become soft, pliable, and surmounted.

If Huba and the monsters are a stand-in for all the endangered species and fragile ecosystems of the planet, is the film telling us that the only way for people to truly care for them is through such improvisational solutions as imaginary surrogacy and symbolic adoption? The film seems to gesture toward a yes: whatever it takes to get us to care, insofar as parenthood is a universal experience. In a way, it is a very Chinese solution to the ecological crisis. Parental love may be notoriously myopic and exclusionary, but Confucianism has long recognized it as a powerful fount of love that could propel us to scale ethical heights, though it has little to say about regularization through institution-building. True to its mass entertainment form, the film magnifies the importance of individual enlightenment and heroism with hardly a nod to the role of institutions. Still, viewers are invited to contemplate the ethical ramifications of playing with boundaries amid levity and exhilaration generated by incongruous juxtapositions and free-for-all action sequences. That in itself is a valuable emotional and moral education. Animated films do this especially well by foregrounding boundaries and accentuating character types, and pitting them against one another in high-definition morality plays. That is precisely why they appeal to the young and old alike. Who among us is exempt from contemplating encountering and perhaps even living with strangers?

Bio:

Haiyan Lee is Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures & Comparative Literature at Stanford University, USA. Before coming to Stanford in 2009, Haiyan Lee taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Hong Kong, and held post-doctoral fellowships at Cornell University and Harvard University. Her first book, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2006), is a critical genealogy of the idea of “love” (qing) in modern Chinese literary and cultural history. It is the first recipient of the Joseph Levenson Prize in the field of modern Chinese literature. Her second book, The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination (Stanford, 2014), examines how the figure of “the stranger”—foreigner, migrant, class enemy, woman, animal, ghost—in Chinese fiction, film, television, and exhibition culture tests the moral limits of a society known for the primacy of consanguinity and familiarity. Her new project centers on Chinese visions of “justice” at the intersection of narrative, law, and ethics. In 2015-16 she received a Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, which supported her residency at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. For more about her work, see “Social Science Research Council (SSRC): New Voices” and “Stanford Report: The Human Experience Feature Story.”          

[1] Adam Seligman and Robert Weller, Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).   

[2] Adam Seligman and Robert Weller, Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 175.  

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