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'Legend of the Demon Cat' ('Yao Mao Zhuan'): Film Review

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Chen Kaige's Sino-Japanese co-production revolves around the investigations of a Chinese poet and a Japanese monk into paranormal activities at the imperial court during the Tang Dynasty.

New Classics Media/Kadokawa Corporation/Emperor Motion Pictures/Shengkai Film

New Classics Media/Kadokawa Corporation/Emperor Motion Pictures/Shengkai Film

While a much more technically adroit vehicle than his misshapen, CG-laden martial-arts fantasy The Promise (2005), Chen Kaige's Legend of the Demon Cat prioritizes sprawling spectacle over involving storytelling and falls far short of the historical and social allegories with which he made his name — like The Yellow EarthSacrifice or Caught in the Web.

And yet the film could have had much more resonance. The story revolves around two scholars who investigate paranormal occurrences in the imperial court and struggle to solve a riddle in a world of illusion. From the emperor and his trusted eunuch all the way down to the unwashed masses, Chen’s characters are easily seduced into subservience by illusionists of every stripe.

Legend of the Demon Cat has certainly mesmerized Chinese audiences looking for high-octane festive fun during the New Year holidays, reaching the $61.5 million mark as it enters its second week of release on Dec. 22. Its popularity may in part be ascribed to lead actor Huang Xuan's following in Feng Xiaogang's recent Youth, which was released a week before Legend and has now surpassed the 1 billion yuan ($154 million) threshold.

Featuring Japanese actor Shota Sometani (HimizuWood Job!), and with Hiroshi Abe (After the Storm) and veteran Keiko Matsuzaka (The Gate of Youth) in supporting roles, the film should also raise a stir in Japan. Co-producer Kadokawa Corp. has cannily promoted Sometani, a left-field icon known for his work with the maverick Sion Sono, as the main attraction, rather than giving him shared billing with Chinese actor Huang Xuan.

Then there is the film’s impressive looks. Speaking to the Chinese press after his visit to the set, Japanese writer Baku Yumemakura, on whose novel Samon Kukai the film is based, said he was "moved to tears" by the epic reconstruction of the ancient Chinese settings in his story. Chen reportedly spent six years and $154 million recreating the capital of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century — an artificial cityscape which is supposed to be turned into a theme park eventually. But what Yumemakura sees as the most impressive part of Legend of the Demon Cat is also its fatal flaw.

Beyond the blockbuster special effects and photogenic multi-national cast, this convoluted Tang Dynasty intrigue will be a struggle for audiences to follow. They will also have to deal with the sketchy relationships of many characters spread across two different timeframes. International audiences who draw a blank on the historical context will probably find the tale as indecipherable as Chen's comical 2015 wuxia caper Monk Comes Down the Mountain.

For Asian audiences, the story could be seen as drawn from the bloodlines of the Japan’s Kwaidan folk tales, or maybe Tsui Hark's Detective Dee series. Western viewers, instead, might see it as a shaggy equivalent to Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

At the center of the story is an odd couple akin to Holmes and Watson, the former taking the shape of the flamboyant, intuitive Chinese poet Bai Letian (Huang, playing a fictional version of the real-life author Bai Juyi) and the latter the poised, analytical Japanese monk Kukai (Sometani, referencing a real-life priest who traveled to China to study Buddhist scriptures.)

The supernatural animal they come up against is a talking black cat, a beast spreading fear and loathing in the ancient capital of Chang'an by spirit possession or straightforward murder. As Bai and Kukai delve deeper into the background of those who fall foul of the cat's wrath, they discover that the deaths and destruction are a ploy to get them reexamine the demise of Yang Yuhuan (Sandrine Pinna, Touch of the Light). She was a wildly beautiful imperial consort, believed to have been strangled to death 30 years previously on the emperor's orders, to appease his mutinous praetorian guard.

But the protagonists' physical adventures and witty exchanges are soon derailed by clunky exposition in protracted flashbacks. These are the very scenes where the CG is pushed to the max: Yang's lavish palace party with its army of magicians and Cirque du Soleil-like performers, for example, or the grand finale involving the consort's lifeless body, the supernatural powers of one of her young admirers (Liu Haoran) and the legendary black feline.

And in the story of Yang Yuhuan, Chen has added yet another layer of sentimentality to what is already one of the most melodramatically perceived royal affairs in Chinese history. In the end, sensationalism and simplistic emotions, bolstered by Klaus Badelt's sweeping score, decimate a story that has otherwise been unfolding nicely with gloom and intrigue.

Production companies: New Classics Films, Kadokawa Corporation, Emperor Motion Pictures, Shengkai Film
Cast: Huang Xuan, Shota Sometani, Sandrine Pinna, Hiroshi Abe, Kitty Zhang, Qin Hao
Director: Chen Kaige
Screenwriters: Wang Hui-ling, Chen Kaige; based on the novel Samon Kukai Tou no Kuninite oni to utagesu by Baku Yumemakura
Producer: Chen Hong
Executive producers: Albert Yeung, Cao Huayi, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, Chen Hong
Director of photography: Cao Yu
Production designers: Tu Nan, Lu Wei
Costume designer: Chen Tongxun
Music: Klaus Badelt
Editing: Li Dianshi
World sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Moonstone Entertainment

In Mandarin and Japanese
129 minutes