How drugs scandal almost derailed Monster Hunt, Chinese hit movie

When one of its stars was arrested on drugs charges in Beijing, it seemed like China's biggest-grossing film yet might never see the light of day

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 2015, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 5:24pm

Monster Hunt has shattered box-office records in China, earning more than US$250 million and becoming the top-grossing Chinese movie of all time. But about nine months ago, director Raman Hui was literally in tears, unsure how he would ever bring his dream movie to screen.

The Hong Kong native had considerable Hollywood experience, having worked on DreamWorks Animation films including Antz, Shrek and Shrek 2, and even co-directing Shrek the Third. Yet whatever challenges Hui had faced over the years in dealing with the grumpy green ogre, one major upside of a cartoon leading man like Shrek is that he can never get busted on drugs charges and throw an entire production into jeopardy.

That, however, is precisely what happened on Monster Hunt, which features real-life actors interacting with computer-animated monsters. And how the production bounced back is a remarkable tale of determination and hustle in China's rough-and-tumble movie market, where box-office receipts are surging but regulations are often vague and unevenly applied.

Produced by Bill Kong (known for critical and commercial hits such as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero), Monster Hunt had finished shooting in 2013. By last summer, the sets had been junked and the special effects were about 70 per cent done.

Then Hui's star, Taiwanese actor and singer Kai Ko, was arrested in Beijing in August 2014 and admitted using marijuana. Hui - who had never before directed a movie on the mainland, nor one with live actors onscreen - initially figured the situation and attendant bad publicity would just delay the release a little from its planned opening in February 2015, during the Lunar New Year holiday. "My first reaction was, oh, that means I'll have more time to make the special effects even better," recalls the bubbly Hui, who looks far younger than his 52 years. "Silly me."

One day last autumn, Hui's phone rang while he was reviewing some special-effects shots. It was producer Doris Tse. She and Kong, who had shepherded the project since its inception around 2008, had come to a decision. Morals-minded mainland authorities seemed unwilling to allow the showing of a film with a drug-using headliner anytime soon. "She called to say, 'I think we are serious about reshooting'," says Hui.

It would be a massive undertaking costing millions of dollars; they would have to refilm 70 per cent and redo 25 per cent of the special-effects work, call back the cast and crew, find a new leading man and rebuild sets. Kong was hoping it could all be done in time for a July 2015 release.

Hui hung up and went back to work. "After two shots, we looked at one [scene] with no actors, just monsters. And my reaction was, OK, this shot is safe. We don't have to change this," he remembers. "Then I started crying. I just burst out in tears."

Monster Hunt revolves around a friendly baby monster with four arms and two legs. His white body and the tuft of green atop his head give him a vague resemblance to a daikon radish. When war breaks out in the monsters' territory, the pregnant queen flees for her life and ends up transferring her unborn into a human man, making him pregnant. (That role, initially played by Ko, was recast with Jing Boran.)

Once baby Wuba is "born", his man-mother and a female human monster hunter (Bai Baihe) resolve to take the creature to the big city and sell him. But along the way, the couple bond with the tyke - and grow sweet on each other. Song-and-dance numbers punctuate the martial arts-style action.

As early as about 2005, Hui had asked Kong, a fellow Hongkonger, whether it would be possible to return home or to mainland China and make an animated film. "Deep down in my heart I wanted to do something in Chinese," Hui says.

My first reaction was, oh, that means I’ll have more time to make the special effects even better. Silly me

The producer shot him down. "I didn't have any experience with animated films," Kong recalls. Hui says: "I gave up that hope of being able to come back."

But about three years later, Kong was visiting Hollywood and invited Hui out for drinks. "He casually said, 'Why don't you make a movie for me - a live-action film with computer graphics'," Hui says. "I said, 'Sure, I'll give it a try'."

They started looking for comic books or other intellectual property to adapt, but nothing clicked. Kong introduced Hui to Hong Kong writer Alan Yuen and the two brainstormed. The script began to come together in 2009, taking vague inspiration from monsters mentioned in classical Chinese literature, but with an original story.

Kong was still hesitant. Finally, Hui and Yuen went to a Beijing-based visual effects house, Base FX, and made a four-minute test film in 2012. That helped give the team confidence to move ahead. "I was a believer from the start," says Christopher Bremble, chief executive of Base FX. "Raman is a very special person. He's a smart, fun, happy guy who brought something unique. And he gives very meticulous notes about animation shots."

But Kong wasn't crazy to be cautious, Bremble says. At the time, China's movie market - now the world's second largest box-office territory, behind North America - was just starting to boom.

Hui came to the mainland in early 2013 and began assembling his crew, even as he continued to do consulting work for DreamWorks. For a director who had spent his whole life working in fully animated films, he regarded the tangible, human nature of Monster Hunt as a challenge, but mostly a thrill - and certainly not the pitfall it turned out to be.

"It was all new to me. I still recall I was so excited to see a costume being made. Before that, all the Shrek costumes were inside a computer. You can't touch it. For this movie, you could touch the fabric," he says. "It was like a toy shop, so exciting."

All was going fairly swimmingly until Ko's arrest and a cloud of uncertainty descended over the project. No officials directly ordered the film to be reshot, Kong says, but doing nothing meant the movie might languish in limbo indefinitely. "There was a holding period for actors who are badly behaved," Kong says, and it was unclear how long it would be. He opted for reshoots. "I see it as a normal business decision, there's not much heroism in here."

But when Bremble heard about the plan to refilm most of Monster Hunt, he says his initial reaction was "fear. And concern for Bill, who had made a big investment in the project." The reshoots, says Kong, pushed the budget to about US$56 million. "Bill wanted us to be in charge," says Hui. "He wanted us to be able to take our own destiny and be in control."

Some people in the mainland's film industry, behind Kong's back, questioned the wisdom of reshooting the film. "People said if he had spent a quarter of the money on bribes as he spent on reshoots, he might have gotten the film approved," says Raymond Zhou, a prominent Beijing film critic.

Months later, another film that Ko had a smaller part in, Tiny Times 4, was allowed a mainland release. So was Monk Comes Down the Mountain, in which Jaycee Chan - Jackie Chan's son, who was arrested along with Ko - had a role. Still, Zhou says Kong's straightforward way of dealing with the "shady and not transparent" rules earned the producer "an undercurrent of sympathy" in the industry.

The second filming took place over five weeks, finishing in late March. Every day, as he completed his shots, Hui would edit and send the footage to Base FX so that effects work could start immediately. In addition to redoing all the scenes that had previously contained Ko, Hui and Kong added several new sequences and new roles for some additional well-known actors, to boost the movie's star quotient.

"Bill never gave up and never lost confidence," Bremble says. "He never played the victim. Instead, he stayed positive and focused and said American studios often do reshoots. Let's make this a new tradition for China."

Nobody expected the film to become China's highest-grossing. The film did benefit from getting a release slot during China's annual summer blackout period of foreign films. That meant Monster Hunt didn't have to contend with Minions, Inside Out or other Hollywood blockbusters, but it still had stiff competition from other Chinese summer movies.

"I thought Monster Hunt would be pounded and defeated," says Zhou. But audiences responded to the movie's heartwarming story, positive family values and cute animation. As of the end of last month, the film had earned US$250 million in China, making it the No 3 movie of all time in China, behind only Transformers: Age of Extinction and Furious 7.

Kong says a sequel is already in the works. As for a US release, the producer says he's received multiple expressions of interest, but nothing has been finalised yet. "I don't think it can find a general audience in the US, but maybe in Chinese communities or [for] home entertainment," he says.

Still, Zhou says Monster Hunt and another recent successful Chinese cartoon, Monkey King: Hero is Back, are boosting the confidence of filmmakers and filmgoers in Chinese-made animation. "If the movie had flopped, everyone would now be laughing at Kong, saying he was ridiculous," says Zhou. "Now, he looks like a visionary."

Los Angeles Times

Monster Hunt is screening now