Legend of the Demon Cat is a tough one. On the one hand, the newest from filmmaker Kaige Chen (Farewell My Concubine) is beyond gorgeous, a sweeping epic with a monumental budget shot beautifully and rolling up elements of Chinese ghost lore. On the other, however, it's at times confusing and leans more into its beauty than its content. Still, it represents something like a $200 million budget and a nigh-unprecedented cooperative feat between production companies in
China, Japan and Hong Kong. Yeah, it's a big deal.
It is the Tang Dynasty (700-something), and the emperor and wife of a mucky-muck
general have both fallen victim to a ghost cat with a lust for blood and rippin' eyeballs. A tentative peace is disrupted. Japanese monk Kukai (Shota Sometani) thus joins forces with the empire's scribe Bai Letian (Xuan Huang) to investigate the goings-on—and the rest, as they say, is history. Or folklore, anyhow.
As far as the visuals go, Legend of the
Demon Cat is in a league of its own, even if the CGI cat sometimes yanks back the curtain of suspended disbelief. Still, a massive real-life city was constructed to house the sets, they're incredible and they'll stick around long after in the form of a
real-life theme park. But it's what the actors do with them that really sets the scope. Sometani's young monk imparts some level of natural wisdom but with a vulnerable naivete or, at least, a charming and youthful curiosity behind empathetic eyes. As the counterpoint, Huang's overconfident scribe is bursting with charisma, and when they really get going as a team, Demon Cat excels.
But it also tends to drag. A small complaint given its beauty, and it's generally not too long before we're back into the fray or trying to piece together the mystery. It is, essentially, a big fat love song dedicated to the traditional Chinese ghost story, and one that is worth seeing for the visual aesthetics alone. Magical realism, when done well, can be truly thrilling, and Chen comes so close to brilliance we can almost taste it—it's just not quite all the way there, even if it's easily the most beautiful film we've seen in ages.
+Incredibly beautiful; Sometani and Huang
-Confusing in parts; slow when it shouldn't be
Legend of the Demon Cat
Directed by Chen
With Sometani and Huang
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR, 129 min.