English Title: Legend of the Demon Cat
Original Title: Kûkai 妖猫传
Country: China, Japan
Language: Mandarin, Japanese
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery, Drama
Director: Chen Kaige 陈凯歌
Chen Kaige 陈凯歌, Wang Huiling 王蕙玲
based on the novel by Baku Yumenakura
Music: Klaus Badelt, Misha Segal
Cinematography: Cao Yu 曹郁
Huang Xuan 黄轩
Zhang Yuqi 张雨绮
Sandrine Pinna 张榕容
Qin Hao 秦昊
Edward Zhang 张鲁一
Liu Haoran 刘昊然
Cheng Taishen 成泰燊
Tian Yu 田雨
Liu Peiqi 刘佩琦
Xin Baiqing 辛柏青
Mason Lee 李淳
Qin Yi 秦怡
Zhang Tian’ai 张天爱
Xia Nan 夏楠
Wang Di 王迪
Every director has highs and lows, but few could match the disparity achieved by Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, bookended by the canonized Palme d’or receiver FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993) and the cringe-worthy fantasy non-starter THE PROMISE (2005). His 15th feature, a China-Japan co-production LEGEND OF THE DEMON CAT, falls more in line with the latter a priori because it is another lavish fantasy yarn that makes the most of the pageantry of China’s Tang Dynasty in its unparalleled apex, but thankfully, under-girded by Baku Yumenakura’s intriguing source novel, and inundated with refulgent extravaganza, it is safe to say, Chen has regained some of his mojo.
Pairing a Tang court scribe Bai Letian aka. Bai Juyi 白居易 (Huang Xuan), who would become a lauded poet on the par with Li Bai 李白 (arguably the most famous Chinese poet, played by Xin Baiqing in flashback), with a Japanese exorcist-and-monk Kûkai (Sometani), the plot pits them against the mystery caused by a black cat, who can speak human language and wreaks vengeance on Chen Yunqiao (Qin Hao), a honcho of the emperor’s guards, by possessing the bodies of those who are near him, especially his wife Chunqin (Zhang Yuqi, sporting an unobtrusive but unheimlich countenance that grabs our attention).
The first half expends most of its time combing through Bai and Kûkai’s investigation with many preternatural occurrences (including a cameo by the doyenne of Chinese cinema, the 96-year-old actress Qin Yi in whey-faced warpaint as an elderly imperial maid), which leads to the lugubrious love story between the previous emperor Xuanzong (Edward Zhang) and his gorgeous consort Lady Yang (Sandrine Pinna, holds court in finery and poise, but also renders Yang’s pitiful fate with an aggrieved resignation) thirty years ago, and as a matter of fact, Bai has just finished his magnum opus “Song of Everlasting Sorrow 长恨歌”, a paean to Lady Yang and their earth-shattering love.
So Bai resolves to get the bottom of the mystery, and most of all, the truth concerning Lady Yang’s premature death during the height of a rebellion, incentivized by his swelling compulsion that she might be still alive, her death might be merely a trick to placate the renegades, meanwhile Kûkai gets his satori about “illusion” thanks to the sleight-of-hand of a melon vendor (Chen Taishen), “there is also truth within an illusion.” Both will come to terms with their obsessions in due time.
Filtered through a journal written by Abe (Hiroshi Abe), a court official with Japanese extraction, who is also, like anybody else, swept off his feet in front of Lady Yang’s grace and beauty, and witnesses her undoing first hand, the movie’s second half rewinds back 30 years earlier, and gradually (if a bit rambling, especially when it alternates with Bai and Kûkai’s narrative) spells out the cruelty of being close to an emperor, to whom when compared with his empire, no one is indispensable but himself, and Lady Yang is the ultimate sacrifice to secure his grip (one needs to do some homework to twig the ulterior motive behind). After further exposition of the intrigue, the sacrifice, the aftermath and a human-to-cat soul transference, the story belatedly reaches a subdued ending, Chen has no intention of invoking the usual martial arts commotion, but the oriental aesthetics in its full-blown palatial grandeur.
Eventually, there is a beneficent Zen message that lingers behind this slightly ponderous mystical tale re-imagining one of China’s most beauteous female personage: one should never be dissuaded from embracing beauty in our lives, even in a world surrounded by falsehood, this is the only way one can find their eternal peace.
referential entries: Chen Kaige’s THE PROMISE (2005, 3.4/10), FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993, 9.1/10); Hark Tsui’s YOUNG DETECTIVE DEE: RISE OF THE SEA DRAGON (2013, 5.6/10), DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010, 6.9/10).