Though a Tenet-class theaters-only rollout has made the new epic movie Monster Hunter impossible to watch in many United States cities, it’s already caused a stir across the Pacific. Financed in part by Chinese conglomerate Tencent and working in a style informed by Chinese blockbusters, Paul W.S. Anderson’s latest CGI bonanza was intended to be a huge hit in the lucrative Chinese movie market. Anderson’s apocalyptic-Western minimalism matches Asian sensibilities to North American ones better than most movies attempting to reconcile the two, but something was still lost in translation. A line of dialogue that evoked a World War II-era racist schoolyard chant got the film pulled from Chinese cinemas and review-bombed into oblivion. Even after a re-edit to remove the offending section, it was rejected from public exhibition. An evolved sense of artistry couldn’t preclude the political friction that often accompanies these kinds of international affairs.
Monster Hunter’s moneymaking prospects in China seem to have been quashed by that faux pas, but from a film critic’s perspective, Anderson made the movie into a clinic on how to make a multinational co-production that isn’t unwieldy or dull. The film is a little Sergio Leone and a little Zhang Yimou. Its smooth synthesis of eclectic reference points makes for a curious but roundly entertaining specimen — a far cry from the usual Frankensteined-together attempts at an international hit.
Monster Hunter may seem like just another SFX-spectacle-of-the-week, but it offers a telling look into the ongoing courtship between Hollywood and China, two giants standing astride a global film economy dominated by a shrinking number of conglomerates. America’s major studios have spent upward of a decade tweaking their releases to enhance their overseas appeal. At a certain height of budgeting, movies turn into products that must be mass-distributed to maximize their earning potential, which can be a tough way to make art — especially when questions of propaganda and human-rights violations come into play.
As what academics have termed the “Asian century” began, the rising tide of rapid economic growth in China lifted the boat of its film industry. By 2013, the country boasted the second-largest sum total of box-office receipts for the year, with a staggering $3.6 billion USD. Tinseltown executives saw that Chinese audiences were far more interested in watching American movies than vice versa, and started to place greater emphasis on elements pandering to trans-Pacific demographics.
One simple example: the Iron Man movies played like gangbusters abroad, so when the time came to bring Ant-Man to the screen, the advertising played up the character as another high-tech masked defender instead of emphasizing the Paul Ruddness of it all. (The strategy worked: Ant-Man picked up an additional $101 million in China, its biggest take outside the States.) An observer can see the success of Tony Stark and his fellow masked hero Star-Lord — Guardians of the Galaxy raked in $86 million in China — trickling down into Ant-Man’s character design.
Some of the narrative choices studios have made to appeal to Chinese audiences haven’t been particularly intrusive or inherently negative. Take a look at the casts of the past decade’s franchises, and the encouraging diversity trend is undeniable. The Fast and Furious pictures have modeled how to gather a globetrotting cast as one happy [Vin Diesel voice] family for nine movies and a spinoff, with the whole cast speaking the universal language of “cars flying off tall structures.” Heading to Shanghai in Skyfall gave James Bond one of the most thrilling sequences of his filmography, with cinematographer Roger Deakins making the neon-laced cityscape shine.
More frequently, however, these tweaks feel like meddlesome concessions that weaken the movies they’re in. Without much grafting-on of extraneous characters or plotlines, Marvel Cinematic Universe films can sometimes give a general impression of having been designed for broadness, in order to transcend cultural and language barriers. The physical humor is simple, the sex scenes nonexistent, and the dialogue dumbed-down, all to more easily fit Eastern cinema authorities’ specifications.
That deference discourages envelope-pushing content, storylines that address hot-button issues, or even the basic existence of gay characters. When Bohemian Rhapsody came to China, LGBTQ advocates cried foul upon learning that government censors had clipped out the bits illustrating that Freddie Mercury was gay and used drugs. When star Rami Malek accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor, his line about Mercury being “a gay man, an immigrant” was also removed from the Chinese broadcast.
Designing a film to appease a rigidly regimented social climate can leave American interests in an awkward position. Going back to Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios produced a separate Chinese version with an inserted subplot where Tony Stark needs emergency experimental surgery from the world’s top surgeons, played by regionally recognized talents Wang Xueqi and fashion icon Fan Bingbing. China’s medical supremacy also figured prominently into the foreign-release cut of the teen-shenanigans comedy 21 & Over (featuring a barely pre-fame Miles Teller), with one character’s entire arc changed from that of an Asian-American pre-med student working up the courage to tell his demanding parents he wants to take it easy, to an Asian immigrant who is “corrupted by our wayward, Western partying ways” before returning to his homeland to be “a better person.”
21 & Over generated another controversy for its cooperation with China. Civil-rights groups denounced producers Relativity Media for shooting in the city of Linyi, then known as the site of the violent house arrest of blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng. This ethical breach was echoed in a 2016 dustup around Doctor Strange’s shoot shifting from Tibet to Nepal and altering the ethnicity of the Tibetan character The Ancient One to avoid censorship from Chinese officials. It happened again with Disney’s live-action 2020 version of Mulan, which came under fire for situating its production in the Xinjiang province, where internment camps currently hold up to a million Uyghur Muslims. The governmental agency operating the inhumane facilities is thanked in the film’s credits.
Even while turning a blind eye to much of what goes on in today’s China, Hollywood has embraced its aesthetics and culture with a new enthusiasm. One thing Mulan got right was its foregrounding of its Asian influences and origins, Americanizing tropes of martial-arts wuxia cinema instead of forcing a few ill-fitting signifiers into a movie. Netflix’s animated feature Over the Moon, a co-production between the streaming giant and Chinese animation house Pearl Studios, likewise suggests a future less restricted by dividing lines. Within a Pixar-ish plot about a girl traveling to a colorful lunar world, the film organically incorporates such myths as the moon goddess Chang’e, and customs like the annual baking of mooncakes. It all goes down much easier than the shoehorned product placement for Chinese telecom company Vivo snuck into Captain America: Civil War.
Allegedly unwitting racial insensitivity notwithstanding, Monster Hunter charts the best path forward for Chinese-courting American blockbusters. It combines the bizarre computer-generated grandeur of China’s similarly named Monster Hunt franchise with the desert hyperkineticism of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Anderson has figured out how to make his limitations into advantages, stripping away everything that could complicate its reception in Asia until all that’s left is the diamond-hard core.
Milla Jovovich plays an Army captain sucked into a vortex and spat out in a sandy dimension populated by horned behemoths and carnivorous mega-spiders imported from Capcom’s series of video games. She meets a compound-bow-wielding hunter (Tony Jaa), and they embark on a hazardous trek across the landscape to reach a tower that can send her home. It’s that simple, with an emphasis on ass-kicking over exposition. It’s admirable how half-assed the script’s explanation for the “Sky Tower” is, as if Anderson is aware that such jibber-jabber only distracts from the melees his viewers can’t wait to get back to. Working within the mode of the Western genre, the bare-boned plot and long dialogue-free stretches feel apt rather than conceptually thin.
That leaves plenty of space for Anderson to fill with action, which he enlivens with out-there flourishes uncommon to the weekly output from America’s studio mainstream. Japanese production company Toho, the birthplace of Godzilla and his kaiju brethren, had a hand in the vividly detailed visualization of the gargantuan Diablos. Anderson shoots almost entirely under bright direct sunlight, letting the viewer savor every spine and crease on the beasts’ hides and marvel at their sophisticated digital texture. (For comparison, consider A Quiet Place’s liberal use of darkness to obscure the shoddy look of its human-stalkers.)
And he revels in touches of over-the-top fantasy, from close-ups of the venom dripping off of Jaa’s arrows to the anime-tinged fiery swords Jovovich takes up for the grand finale. And yet the subtext between Jovovich and Jaa hints at the same dynamics Iron Man 3 was going for, with the technologically advanced Westerner humbled by the superior expertise of an Eastern counterpart.
Monster Hunter exemplifies an exciting new hybrid breed of tentpole, one expressly designed for minimal friction in China, but without the lumpy qualities of a clumsy amalgam. Its numbers aren’t bearing that out, unfortunately. The COVID-19 pandemic and the nursery-rhyme backlash helped flatten its worldwide box-office take to $17.4 million. All the same, the film is a microcosm of the faults and hopes of blockbuster producers facing the options to adapt or die.
Securing the yuan has become a must for expensive tentpole projects. But if that can’t be done without compromised creativity or complicity in crimes against humanity, further pushback and protest will be inevitable. As capitalism gets bigger, the planet keeps getting smaller, and soon enough, we’ll all be sharing theaters again in the literal and figurative senses. Monster Hunter is one model for how that can be done harmoniously, without sacrificing conscience or personality in the process.