After the disaster of Zhang Yimou’s CGI-extravaganza The Great Wall more than a year ago, we wondered if Zhang’s fellow Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige’s latest film Legend of the Demon Cat, which seemed to also be built out of computer imagery, might follow the same fate? Chen’s decision to build real sets for his Tang Dynasty epic, which would take five years to build with costs amounting to US$200 million and which would be later used as a theme park, and his specific use of computer imagery imbues the film with an operatic yet relatable sense of reality.
Adapted from a novel by popular writer Baku Yumemakura, the film follows imperial scribe and poet Bai Letian and visiting Japanese monk Kuai as they investigate the mystery of the Emperor’s unusual death. They soon discover that a black cat with supernatural powers and an ability to talk is responsible for the Emperor’s death. Their investigation leads them into the past and we are shown through flashbacks what led to the events that have transpired in the present. The cat is on a rampage to avenge those who have, directly and indirectly, caused the death of Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China, whose tragic story Bai is attempting to turn into poetry. The film is structured like a detective mystery and as the film progresses, the cat leaves behind clues that help our main characters figure out the person behind Yang’s death is.
Without a doubt, Chen has crafted a visually rich and detailed period piece. The scale of the film, with its thousand-strong extras and extensively choreographed set pieces, testifies to Chen’s visual and organisational powers as a director. Unfortunately, even while we are enraptured by the resplendent beauty of the sets and cinematography and the virtually faultless performance of the cast, it can be difficult to follow the narrative with the huge cast of characters, uneven character development, extended flashbacks, and multiple plotlines.
While nowhere close to the masterpieces of early Chen, if seen within the context of a glut of modern CGI fantasy films coming out of China, Legend of the Demon Cat proves that such films can be well made — as long as the focus is on characters and story. - Say Peng