2017 PRC/2019 USA
Directed by Chen Kaige
Written by Hui-Ling Wang and Chen Kaige (based on the novel Sramana Kukai by Baku Yumenakura)
It's not wise to throw around superlatives, so probably best to say that Chen Kaige's Legend of the Demon Cat (co-written by the director with Hui-Ling Wang, and adapting, though I have no idea how accurately, a Japanese novel) is only one of the most imaginative films of the 2010s. In the same way it's not wise to use superlatives, it's rude to exotify foreign films, so I won't say aloud that any industry that produced Legend of the Demon Cat would make populist American filmmaking look weak and timid. It's tempting to think it, but it's not really true anyway, as the cinematic imagination of big-budget Chinese filmmaking isn't uniformly great either (for every Mermaid there's a Wandering Earth, though both, I concede, are true originals in their own ways). Finally, it's extremely rude to use Western touchstones to explain a non-Western story, but I'll do it anyway: imagine a movie about Euripides who, in the midst of writing Iphigenia at Aulis, was compelled to investigate her murder, and to do so he teamed up with—oh, I don't know, this is exceedingly approximate in all ways—Heraclitus, who'd stopped into Athens from Persia to do sorcery, because that's what Ionian philosophy is in this story, sorcery. Yeah, there's every chance you don't know who the hell those people are either, but I hope it at least suggests the unabashedly weird yet also weirdly corny historical fiction that animates Demon Cat, and I haven't even gotten to the demon cat.
Well, that fiction situates itself in the quasi-history of the Tang Dynasty, specifically the reign of the Emperor Xuanzong (Zhang Luyi), and—even more specifically—May 3rd, 762, insofar as it doesn't situate itself in the reign of Emperor Xuanzong for very long, given that the emperor has been afflicted with a demonic curse to which he shall almost immediately succumb and die. Before this, he had not so much as closed his eyes in seven days, and his torments had become so severe and apparently supernatural that his attendants had called in Kukai (Shota Sometani), a Japanese Buddhist monk (later to achieve fame in his home country as the founder of the Shingon School, a fact that is not mentioned in this movie, just as a great many facts shall not be mentioned in this movie, and many shall be contradicted). Kukai's tasked with an exorcism, but arrives just in time to see the emperor die in a fit of terror, whereupon the officials apologize for the inconvenience, but also warn him that he is not to mention he was ever there; the official story is that the emperor died of flu. The imperial scribe, Bai Juyi (Huang Xuan), holds no truck with this censorship, and quits—well, that's what he tells Kukai, anyway, when he catches up with him. The monk's curiosity piqued, and Bai rather eager to understand the clues of cat fur and wet pawprints found near the emperor's deathbed, when they jointly witness a talking, preternaturally powerful cat massacre a contingent of the imperial guard at a brothel, principally to get at Chen Yunqiao (Qin Hao), they see little option but to put themselves on the case, and soon they'll come to understand that whatever this demonic conspiracy turns out to be, it centers itself powerfully upon the late emperor's even later concubine, the most beautiful woman in China, Yang Yuhuan (Sandrine Pinna), executed by the emperor with great regret some thirty-six years ago, and who, the demon alleges, was killed more horribly and for worse reasons than the official history states—along with her and her emperor's beloved pet cat. Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served cold, like fish eyes.
So, that's somebody's overlay, either Chen and Hui-Ling's, or the novel's, and Demon Cat structures its wilder flights of fancy by essentially channeling them through a detective story, and while it's hard to call "a monk and a scribe, they're historical, literary, and religious figures of great significance, and, also, they're cops" a cliché, it still kind-of is. But clichés are cliché for good reason, and Demon Cat uses its to anchor its historical fantasy to something plot-driven and comprehensible, though the truest value of it becomes apparent in the instant rapport Xuan and Sometani develop with their mismatched buddy-cop non-stereotypes. Bai's glad to be rid of his gig as an imperial scribe, for now he can focus on his tragic love poetry, specifically one of the classics of Chinese literature in the form of a little ditty he calls The Song of Everlasting Sorrow—a work that Demon Cat essentially claims it's telling the real story of, that is, the one that involves an infernal feline assassin—and Kukai's the quiet, cool, analytical partner, probably the louchest Buddhist monk you'll ever see (he dances with a prostitute!). Kukai's just great: objective in his status as a scholar and outsider, he comes off smarter than everybody else in the film, and at turns even deliciously smug, but never once obnoxious about it. (Ironically, the baby-faced Sometani, giving the film its best performance as the sphinxlike Kukai, looks less like a large infant with the shaved pate of a medieval Japanese monk than he does with the floppy hair he rocks in his everyday life.)
I swear that, somehow, this is true.
It's such a terrifically appealing dynamic that the film's single biggest problem is that it ultimately has to shift to other concerns, as they plumb the mystery of why and how a demon cat is haunting those connected with Yang Yuhuan's death. (The second-biggest problem is that it assumes you already have a firm grasp on Tang history, and know who, for example, "An Lushan" is; in fairness, a Chinese audience might, but it's such a glancing treatment of the actual history that it's mildly confusing if you don't.) Eventually the extraordinary labyrinth of the plot mostly unkinks itself: an extended flashback, via the journal of another Japanese visitor, Abe no Nakamaro (Hiroshi Abe), fills them in on most of the pertinent details, and by the time the final act rolls around and Kukai and Bai are obliged to return to actual detective work, they've become very serious (especially Bai, whose whole literary magnum opus has been upended by the facts), and, as a result, a little less fun.
By this point, the aims of the film have shifted anyway, and Demon Cat has had a such a blast with its premise up to this point that it's earned the right to upend the tone toward one of aching nostalgia and anger at finding out the myths one's been brought up with aren't necessarily real, but, if you can put that anger aside, emotionally true all the same; it's very "print the legend" and works spectacularly well on that count, though I could've lived without Bai dryly telling me exactly what the theme of his movie was in the coda. (There's a remarkable bit earlier that approaches the value of belief from a very different angle, as the demon cat effortlessly infiltrates the household of Chen Yunqiao and his wife Chunqin (Kitty Zhang); having been previously victimized by the cat's rampage, Chen's employed the services of a small army of priests who go about their chanting and ritual, and, their mystical arms denuded of passion or, apparently, faith, the cat does not even notice.)
Best to stick with the "fun" phase of Demon Cat for a moment (though I daresay it's never not fun), as this is where I suspect the majority of Chen's astoundingly large budget and perhaps the balance of his attention went. Between exchange rates, purchasing power variation, and the creativities of Chinese film financing (such as lend approximately eight separate production company logos to the pre-title sequence, a number that includes Japanese companies), it is of course difficult to say how much a Chinese film cost, but the reported $20-ish million budget is obviously not correct, and evidently does not include the reported $200 million spent on its sets, which were intended to become a theme park afterwards. They are, in any event, massive and sprawling sets—augmented by computers, just the physical part is already enormous, and Chen is almost deliriously eager to investigate every corner of them he can, with so many walk-and-talk dialogues between Kukai and Bai that I'm surprised Sometani and Huang don't get winded, and, like it or lump it, Demon Cat is a staggeringly energetic work of filmmaking. I don't think one shot in fifty is static, and the modal image of it has a camera gliding enthusiastically through the sets and between the actors, gawking at everything it sees, frequently swirling in orbit around them, not infrequently just investigating something else it finds interesting.
It isn't quite elegant camerawork from cinematographer Yu Cao—it's friendly rather than belligerent, but half the time the camera feels drunk—but Chen is so dead-set on getting every possible yuan of his film's cost on camera, and he's so vigorous in his shot design, that I think I'd slightly love this even if it didn't also manage to be a very effective narrative tool for its two amateur detectives, who, after all, have found themselves lost in a swirl of magical secrets and lies. (And this isn't even getting into the adorably goofy elements of Chen's storytelling, like the flipped pages of a codex dissolving into a flashback, with the "flip" effect applied to the footage.) Besides, it's also so kaleidoscopically colorful. The photography itself can be slightly lacquered, but that's life in the 21st century, and color still manages to pop through, stacked to the rafters (sometimes literally) with Chen's composition-in-depth and the piled-upon detail of Wei Lu and Tan Nu's production design and Tongxun Chen's costume design—hell, it's a movie prone to just stopping itself entirely and luxuriating in wacky (sometimes heartmeltingly-beautiful) computer-boosted magic shows. It would be a sin if it didn't show it off. It's a film made to be gawked at, so of course the camera gawks.
It is, likewise, a horror film, at least lightly. It's not scary, but it has a nice gore shock involving eyes, the cat's ability to become a shadow on paper walls is a strikingly effective horror visual, and there are moments when illusion overtakes Kukai and Bai's reality that at least border on the actually-spooky. Still, it's mostly a lark, as far as horror goes, as it (wisely) recognizes that "evil cat" is a little too silly to be scary or spooky, especially given the limitations of Chinese CGI, which probably deserves a little bit of discussion itself. Now, there is a fair amount of perfectly fine CGI in Demon Cat, mostly cityscapes and sunsets; but energy was not spent in pursuit of photorealism here. Frequently, it wasn't even spent in pursuit of persuasive compositing. Some CGI crowd scenes (in a film that otherwise obviously had a generous extras budget, mind you) are, I'd say, actually "bad." (There are some moonlit skies with a painfully visible gradient that are bad without any scare-quotes, too.) But something you can sometimes count on in modern Chinese megaproductions is that "bad Chinese CGI" actually approaches (and sometimes arrives at!) a genuine aesthetic, a sort of otherworldiness that isn't really trying to be convincing, but instead gestures at how uncanny the poor humans beholding it would necessarily find such an intrusion of an alien reality into their own. (Whereas "bad American CGI" is almost always just bad CGI. But it hits me like a diamond bullet that the exception is what Demon Cat reminds me of so much, and that's Guillermo del Toro, though it would be my favorite del Toro.) For the most part, Demon Cat stays on the right side of weird, and though I rather wish some effort had gone into making the CGI cat look slightly more like the real cat they sparingly use when it's tasked with nothing more onerous than sitting there looking cute—they're both all-black and, broadly speaking, both have green eyes, but that's about the limit of the resemblance, with the real one having noticeably different facial features—but the plus side is that, for all that it is a "bad" photorealistic CGI cat, it's a terrifically emotive CGI cartoon cat.
The effort to turn dubious CGI into a strength reaches its apex when the monk and the poet's excursions pay off with Abe's journal (arguably one of the film's best performances comes in the melancholy of his widow, played by Keiko Matsuzaka), and, a little over midway through, we're flung back into the Golden Age of the Tang, not so long ago but long enough that it seems that no one who knew it firsthand remains alive. The "golden age" aspect is made literal in the photography, which somehow becomes even more mythic in its complexion than it already was (now everything looks like it's CGI, but it also looks almost as much like a Méliès curio), sharp yet somehow suffused with light, with the golden sheen Cao's been using to nod at nostalgia all along now exploding to make every object look like its glowing with its own brilliance, especially Yang Yuhuan herself. The golden age, of course, is really only gilded, as becomes clearer the closer you look at it, and yet, as an idea, irresistibly tantalizing to someone who's only known decay (or, and I suppose this is speculative, someone for whom the observable present has perpetually sucked, for example someone who saw a grand experiment fail, and whose young adulthood was spent being a Red Guard obliged to denounce his own father during the Cultural Revolution). Evidently Chinese literature and commentary on Yang has wound up split between takes that villify her as a callous bitch and those that mourn her as a victim, and it's spoiling little to say that Demon Cat takes the latter tack, while raising the famed beauty up as the very spirit of some inexpressible, vanished glory, the only thing about it that was real. It's a daunting role for Pinna, akin to asking an actress to play Helen of Troy or Audrey Hepburn, but she acquits herself well with a certain serene gaze that embodies a sort of sad but contented beauty, suggesting that, long before it happens, she knows this will end poorly for her, and she's resigned herself to that. It's through her, and the dreamstuff of the court at Chang'an surrounding her—the plot turns upon a grand celebration of her existence—that the film pivots towards its splendidly melodramatic second half, which finally explains why the emperor's cat can talk now, and what his endgame is, and I will admit to being shocked to actually find myself moved by the tragic villainy of a cartoon feline. Whatever else I could say about Legend of the Demon Cat, I will commit to one superlative about it: it's the best movie they ever made about a talking cat, and I'll have you know I've seen The Cat From Outer Space.