Men’s romantic vows may be short-lived, but a pet’s love is forever. This is one of many Zen takeaways in Chen Kaige’s “Legend of the Demon Cat,” a visually and mentally seductive piece of historic revisionism set in the Tang Dynasty (705 A.D.), during which a Japanese monk and Chinese poet team up to investigate the death of Imperial concubine Yang Guifei. A massive international co-production between China, Japan and Hong Kong, this stunning blockbuster shows that a superior original source, vaunting artistic ambition and a $170 million budget can turn a potboiler supernatural whodunit into something of ravishing beauty.
With Chen’s auteur imprint barely noticeable and Ang Lee’s favored scriptwriter Huang Huiling (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) providing a narrative throughline with a strong literary foundation, this looks less like a vanity project than some of the director’s more uneven endeavors. Co-produced by filmmaking and publishing giant Kadokawa, with a big name Japanese cast (Shota Sometani, Hiroshi Abe), this screen adaptation of bestselling author Baku Yumemakura’s novel could create buzz similar to John Woo’s “Red Cliff.” It may be the first time in years that a Japanese is the hero and central figure of a mainland film.
In the four-volume novel “Shamon Kukai Tou no Kuni ni te Oni to Utagesu,” rumored to be the most expensive book option ever paid for a Chinese production, the prolific sci-fi and historical fantasy author playfully reinvents two canonized historical figures: Kukai and Bai Juyi. The former, AKA Kobo-Daishi, founded the Shingonshu school of Buddhism in the Heian period; the latter was one of the greatest Chinese poets ever.
Kukai (Shota Sometani), a Japanese monk who came to the Tang capital Chang’an to study an esoteric Tantra, is summoned to the court of Emperor Xuanzong (Zhang Luyi), who is possessed. The self-proclaimed exorcist discovers tufts of feline hair in Xuanzong’s chamber. Palace official Bai Letian, AKA Juyi (Huang Xuan), mentions the rumor of a talking, fish-eye-eating cat in the household of Yunqiao (Qin Hao), captain of the royal guards.
They follow some leads to a bordello, a location that allows Chen to indulge in an opulent display of beautiful women, especially one (Crystal Zhang Tian’ai) performing a rapturous Uighur dance, before the demon cat appears with a sinister flourish. The director evokes the Tang Dynasty’s sexually open environment via a “Nichang Yuyi” dance, performed with feverish sensuality by Yunqiao’s wife Chunqin (Kitty Zhang Yuqi, “The Mermaid” in foxy overdrive) under demonic possession. Both the levels of eroticism and gore are refreshingly rare by tame mainland standards.
In creating the image of a cat with a murderous grudge, Yumenaka may be influenced by the 1968 Gothic horror “Kuroneko” by Kaneto Shindo, which is itself a claw-back to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat.” Amid an ever-present ghoulish vibe, the enigmatic plot keeps audiences wondering if the cat really has supernatural powers, or whether it’s a decoy for some human conspiracy. Recurring encounters with a melon vendor with magic tricks up his sleeve paves the way for more dazzling, and more dangerous illusionist gambits.
The film also revolves around Bai’s creative process as an aspiring poet and how he reconciles truth with artistic license. His magnum opus, “Chang Hen Ge” (Song of Everlasting Regret), on the life of Yang Guifei, points the way to resolving the film’s puzzles. More clues from a deceased Japanese courtier Abe no Nakamaro (Hiroshi Abe) finally transport audiences to 30 years ago — specifically, to Yang’s birthday bash, called Banquet of Ultimate Bliss, a national event symbolizing Xuanzong’s love and the glory of the Empire.
The spectacular entry of Yang (Sandrine Pinna), withheld till well over halfway, pushes the sensory splendor of the film to such a satiating height, it’s as if a giant balloon is ready to burst at any moment. Yang’s traditional image as a Helen of Troy-like figure is rewritten to make her a champion of equality, artistic freedom and love. The foreboding that her life and the great civilization she embodies has peaked and is poised for decline echoes the historic perspective of such epic films as Alejandro Amenábar’s “Agora.”
The narrative goes through a lot more twists before reaching its denouement, which requires a considerable suspension of disbelief (a subplot involving a voodoo potion makes the least sense). By then, the story’s veered wildly from the source, the recurring illusionist motif connects with another theme — that of cheating and betrayal, culminating in the protagonists’ realization that the pursuit of love, dynastic greatness or immortality is futile, whereas enlightenment means accepting that life is an illusion.
Lead actors Sometani and Huang are both charming enough even if their emotional struggles are superficially depicted. Sometani, whose bright eyes are accentuated by his bald head, imparts a sage, unworldly presence. Half-French, half-Taiwanese Pinna is an unconventional choice to play the legendary beauty, whom the film describes as “having Turkic blood.”
Visual effects completed in Japan are precise with static images, but CGI of the cat often looks fake, and it’s glaringly obvious that several live cats have been cast to play a single one as their sizes and features vary. In Imax, Cao Yu’s cinematography achieves a monumental dimension, though the editing is slightly jittery and blurry, especially in scenes of shape-shifting.
In contrast to the meticulous authenticity and period-enhancing glow in the decor and lighting of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Tang dynasty-set “The Assassin,” production design by Tu Nan and Lu Wei luxuriate in elements of fantasy. Not only does the reported $200 million sound stage deliver in terms of architectural grandeur, but attention to detail is apparent in every prop, from the intricate patterns on a storage chest to giant carp lanterns that echo the film’s cat-and-fish motif. Costumes are divine, despite their lack of cleavage (actual Tang dynasty robes were famously low-cut), an inaccuracy complying to prim film bureau standards.