LEGEND OF THE DEMON CAT (2017) review

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Based on a best-seller by Japanese author Baku Yumemakura, this massive, 200-million dollars production – whose enormous sets are soon to become an amusement park – is a uniquely ambitious co-production between Mainland China, Japan and Hong Kong. It takes place in the year 805, as a mysterious black cat stalks the imperial palace in Chang’an, just as the gravely ill emperor Dezong dies from a violent fit ; the same cat appears to Chen Yunqiao (Qin Hao), captain of the imperial guard, and to his wife Chunqin (Zhang Yuqi), revealing to them a cache of money, but asking in return to be fed eyes – the eyes of any creature, including humans. Buddhist monk Kukai (Shota Sometani), who had arrived from Japan to meet the emperor and senses the presence of the black cat, joins forces with scholar, poet and newly-fired imperial scribe Bai Letian (Huang Xuan) to unravel the mystery: they soon realize it takes its root thirty years before, when Tang emperor Xuanzong (Zhang Luyi) had his consort – and legendary beauty – Yang Yuhuan (Sandrine Pinna) killed. A known historical fact, about which Bai Letian has been writing a poem for the past few years: and yet it may be a lie, as the personal account of Abe no Nakamaro (Hiroshi Abe), a scholar who knew the emperor and his consort, seems to reveal.

Legend of the Demon Cat is an oddly-structured film of two halves. The first half is an engagingly macabre slice of supernatural detective fiction: the talking black cat introduced in a matter-of-fact way, and remains very cute even when threatening to gouge out people’s eyes, which tips the film more into black comedy. And it’s impossible not to think of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee as Shota Sometani and Huang Xuan investigate and banter through imperial city looking for clues which generally involve the power of illusion, or Chinese medicine. Both are charming enough leads, though even when joining forces then can barely muster a thimbleful of charisma. They’re certainly upstaged by the massive, gloriously immersive sets supervised by Tu Nan and Lu Wei, and by Chen Tongxun’s gorgeous costumes. Not to mention by the splendor of Zhang Yuqi (her screen name “Kitty Zhang” becoming quite apt when the demon cat possesses her) and Crystal Zhang (underused but dancing). Qin Hao overacts wildly, but this is in tune with the unexpectedly tongue-in-cheek tone.

Then, the investigation grinds to a halt, almost completely resolved in one fell swoop by the discovery of a convenient manuscript, which leads to extended flashbacks to 30 years later, for a fantasy take on the story of Emperor Xuanzong and Consort Yang Yuhuan (aka Yang Guifei). The tone shifts seamlessly, but disappointingly, to po-faced drama. CGI runs amok, with a scene of a giant feast overstuffed with fantastical visions, to the point it becomes sickening. Actors are either miscast (Sandrine Pinna is a jarringly unimpressive Yang Guifei), cartoonish (Zhang Luyi plays Xuanzong as a weird mix of meth addict and Garfield the cat), underused (though their characters are key, Oho Ou and Liu Haoran simply don’t appear enough to have any sort of emotional impact), or simply dead-eyed (Hiroshi Abe is obviously not sure what he’s doing there). The mystery’s resolution is both tear-jerking and improbable – even within its fantasy parameters. The film’s coda applies to classical poetry John Ford’s “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend”, but we’re tempted to tell Chen Kaige “when you’ve got a cute evil talking black cat, stick to macabre comedy.”

Long Story Short: Lavish and delightfully macabre in its first half, Legend of the Demon Cat then devolves into CGI excess and unconvincing, po-faced drama. **1/2

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