Legend of the Demon Cat
Since the early 1980s, Chinese director Chen Kaige has made films that have played to international audiences. His most celebrated was 1993’s Palme d’Or winner Farewell My Concubine. He’s delved into historical dramas, romances, and even internet culture, all with a unique style that’s visually and narratively compelling. His latest, Legend of the Demon Cat, manages to be epic, mythological, and slightly odd.
Based on a Japanese novel by Baku Yumemakura, the film has, as per the title, a talking, demonic cat that weaves its way into a tale of unresolved justice. This is essentially a buddy-cop movie except that the investigative pair consists of a student exorcist (Shota Sometani) and a poet (Huang Xuan) who track down just what the ferocious feline is up to.
Emperors die, faces are clawed, and loads of other intrigue takes place as the storyline slowly unravels. It does so within the scope of an absolutely massive set that recreates an imperial city in mind-bending ways. (Chen pointed out the $200 million dollar price tag, some 20,000 planted trees, and a half-decade to construct.) It’s hard to say whether it’s wasteful or wonderful, but between the huge sets and the cast of thousands, it truly does feel like a cinematic epic from a different time.
Plenty of other magical and spiritual elements take place besides the talkative feline. Some lean toward whimsy while others speak to a demonic nature. The movie also has oodles of subtle, culturally specific allusions surely missed by international audiences. Still, despite these specificities, Chen’s film plays out without the usual pedantic nature of many such Chinese historical dramas. While it’s not flawless, the film surely entertains and amazes with its scope.
I needed little more than a crazy kitty making havoc within an imperial palace, and for the most part I was rewarded on that front. The dynamic between poet and student is pleasant, and the gentle ribbing that occurs between the two keeps the film flowing well.