Chinese director Chen Kaige is doing double duty in Toronto. He heads the jury for the festival’s cutting-edge Platform section. On Sunday he presents a sneak peak of his new movie, “The Legend of the Demon Cat,” and discusses his cinematic journey.
In a 30-year career, stretching from the pre-reform era to the more commercial modern era, Chen has directed some of China’s most beloved arthouse movies (“Temptress Moon”) to box office record breakers (“The Promise”). He won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993 with “Farewell My Concubine.” “Demon Cat” is his first film in six years and is constructed on a different scale.
Billed as an epic, a period romance and a detective story, the film is plunge into the rich culture of the Tang Dynasty, some 1,300 years ago, which Chen says is one of favorite periods in Chinese history. It is also an attempt to shed new light on the Concubine Yang character who has populated numerous other Chinese movies. Yang was a legendary mixed-race beauty who enchanted the emperor, but was eventually sacrificed by him.
For this particular retelling, Chen chose to adapt the novel “Samana Kukai” by Japanese novelist Yoneyama Mineo.
“There is so much to engage the modern audience. The Tang Dynasty was an equivalent of the eastern Roman Empire, a period of commerce and culture, of openness, and one where even foreigners could hold government positions,” says Chen.
Chen’s passion led him to spend more than five years making the film, obsessing over a huge cast, lush costumes and even planting trees in massive purpose-built sets. The building project was so large that it required separate investors, in addition to those backing the movie, and a decision to convert the sets into a permanent tourist attraction.
“When we took the writer there, it reduced him to tears, literally,” says Chen.