Underground Monster (2022)

Rating: C-

Dir: Huang He
Star: Wei Wei, Wei Lu, Lu Jin-Hao, Zhang Chun-Zhong

Even by the loose standards of Chinese monster movies, this is all over the place, tonally. It begins as a fairly straightforward creature feature, suddenly shifts into a kid flick, abruptly reverses course into something bordering on the genuinely disturbing, then mutates into… an anti-littering lecture. It ends with someone asking the question, “Who are the monsters?” with an entirely straight face, while the audience wonder a) how the hell we got here from there, and b) how many years of therapy the kid character will need. [An in-credit sequence shows he seems to have bounced back nicely. Chinese kids must be considerably more resilient to traumatic experiences than their Western counterparts]

It begins with a mining team breaking into a cave, which turns out to be home to an octopus-like beast. In the ensuing fracas, one of its eggs comes into the possession of junkyard owner He Chi (Wei Wei). He is enjoying his parental visitation rights with son, Xiao Jie (Lu), though estranged wife Lin-Na (Wei Lu) is none too happy about it. She’s not wrong, as the egg hatches, attacking the family until it’s burned alive by Chi. Awkwardly, mummy monster shows up (though I may be assuming its gender, since there is talk of parthenogenesis), and kidnaps Jie in revenge, dragging him back to its lair. Except, there child and creature bond, in a cloying and annoying middle section, that feels like it strayed in from one of those really bad Godzilla movies in the early nineties. It eats rubbish, so is actually an eco-warrior monster, recycling digestively.

Dad, together with a conveniently passing cryptozoologist and his assistant, put together a rescue party to look for his son. Only, there’s a time crunch, since there’s a bunch of construction workers also looking for the beast. They’re miffed at having seen their colleagues slaughtered, and are not quite so ecologically-minded, shall we say. It’s the clash between the two sides which leads to a remarkably dark ending, certainly not one I saw coming. While the film deserves credit for pulling it out of nowhere, it’s too radical a shift, and yet, is not enough to salvage proceedings after the poor knock-off of Pete’s Dragon with tentacles, we got in the middle.

The monster is pretty cool to look at, and the interactions around the scrap yard are well done. It’s a shame it doesn’t get to be more monstrous, effectively being neutered by its interaction with Xiao Jie. The cryptozoologist never amounts to much either; while there’s some dialogue pointing to a relationship with He Chi’s father,  any payoff is insubstantial at best. The shoehorning in of an eco-homily, complete with a lesson on the importance of disposing of your garbage in the correct container during the credits, is the final bit of bizarre icing, on this ill-conceived waste of a rather good creature.

This review is part of our feature, When Chinese Animals Attack.