You’d think a movie with the word “demon” in the title would lean a bit more into horror, but while the scares are almost non-existent, but Chen Kaige never lets go of the fantasy and dark elements of Baku Yumemakura’s bestselling novel The Legend of the Demon Cat. The result is an entertaining and heartfelt fantasy mystery that feels part Sherlock Holmes, and part The Woman in Black.
There have been two generations of emperors from the Tang Dynasty who have died under mysterious circumstances. The latest, Emperor Xuanzong, appears to be possessed, so Japanese monk Kukai (Shota Sometani) is summoned to court to exorcise the emperor. He arrives to late, as the emperor dies before his eyes, and Kukar discovers a talking black cat that apparently has accompanied the Emperor for years. After the cat possesses a general’s wife, wreaks havoc on the imperial court and kills a concubine, Kukai will team up with Chinese poet Bai Letian (Xuan Huang) to discover the truth behind the mysterious killings, the origin of the talking cat, and how it connects with an imperial concubine murdered by the previous emperor 30 years earlier.
First thing one notices about The Legend of the Demon Cat, is the production design. There is an over-reliance on CGI, which only gets worse as time passes. Unnecessary CGI acrobats are added to the already lavish palace parties, and the titular demon gets a grand entrance with a plethora of special effects. On the other hand, the film’s most impressive accomplishment is its recreation of the imperial capital Chang’an. It took 5 years and an estimated cost of US$200 million to complete, bringing the magic and mystery of the 7th century to life with an exquisite attention to detain – it is also reported that the set is to be turned into an amusement park, though there is no confirmation on whether the cat is included. Just like Peter Jackson did with Hobbiton, Chang’an looks like a real lived-in city, filled with life and culture.
The focus of the story is the odd pairing of Kukai and Bai Letian, the former being a fictional version of a real-life priest who first brought to Japan the ideas of esoteric Buddhism, and the latter being a fictional version of a real-life celebrated Chinese poet. The duo has great chemistry together, and work as the type of odd couple that reminds of Holmes and Watson. The film has quite a sense of humor, most of it coming from the banter between Kukai and Letian.
The story takes a darker, yet heartfelt turn as we start delving into the mystery of the previous emperor, and the relationship between him and his favorite concubine. There is a running theme of love and sacrifice that gives a tragic edge to the film, even if the twists and turns keep it dark and rooted in fantasy and magic.
The Legend of the Demon Cat may confuse audiences not familiar with the book, as the story handles two different timelines and too many characters with too many relationships to keep track of. But at the core of it all stand a couple of goofballs that never stop entertaining, and a talking black cat that gives the film a much-welcomed fantasy element.