Director Kaige Chen is one of China's all-time greats, but it wasn't until Monk Comes Down the Mountain (the one before this) that I could truly appreciate something he directed. Legend of the Demon Cat [Kukai] looked like it was going to be an extension of his previous film, so I was really looking forward to seeing how this would measure up. As it turns out, it's even better. This is by far my favorite Chen, though I'm quite confident that I'll be one of the few ones to think so.
A lot has changed since Kaige Chen's first couple of films. Depending on whom you talk to, he either worked himself up from the ground to become one of the biggest names in Chinese cinema, or he slipped from critical arthouse darling to soulless, commercial apostate. I'm firmly in the first camp, then again I'm not a very big fan of 80s and early 90s Chinese cinema. Ever since Chen turned full-on genre though, I've found his films a lot easier to stomach and a lot more enjoyable than before.
Legend of the Demon Cat is an adaptation of Samana Kukai, a novel written by Japanese author Yoneyama Mineo. Chen shows plenty of respect for the story's roots, as is demonstrated by the inclusion of a couple of Japanese actors in key roles, though he makes sure that ultimately it still feels like an all-Chinese production. It's definitely nice to see though that both countries are starting to benefit from each other's strengths, as I feel there's plenty to be gained from more (decent) Sino-Japanese co-productions.
The story revolves around Kukai, a shaman monk brought over from Japan in order to cure the emperor from a strange disease. When Kukai finally arrives he's barely in time to catch the emperor's last breath. Rumors about hauntings are doing the rounds and Kukai teams up with the emperor's scribe to find out who or what's behind all this. The clues lead them back in time, where lies a daunting secret that once revealed will rewrite history. It all sounds pretty epic and grand, but in the end it's just a pretty straight-forward murder mystery really.
Those visuals though. Around the turn of the century directors like Yimou Zhang and Xiaogang Feng were constantly trying to upstage each other with every new martial-arts themed period piece that came out. Chen also joined in on the fun, but delivered the somewhat questionable The Promise. Legend of the Demon Cat is clearly Chen's revenge. He spent 5 years building the sets for this one (and they'll remain functional as a theme park afterwards), which allowed him to considerably cut down on CG.
There's still a bunch here, but in comparison with other modern Chinese blockbusters the film is basically CG-free. A lot of it is done using more traditional techniques, and it looks almost incomprehensibly lush from start to finish. The camera floats through the sets, the colors just burst from the screen, the framing is absolutely exquisite. It's been a while since I've seen a Chinese film this stunning, and it's a great reminder of how capable they actually are if they stay away from the pixels.
The soundtrack is okay, but less outspoken. It's the typical trade-off in these films, where a lot of attention goes to the visuals and the soundtrack is merely a necessary hurdle to overcome. Sure enough, the music is nice and fits the movie well, but it's never leading, it never dictates the rhythm of the film or directs the atmosphere. It's just a selection of pleasant tracks that adapt to whatever is happening on the screen, making sure there aren't too many moments of silence. It's adequate, but nothing more.
I was surprised to see Shota Sometani featured in one of the principal roles. Sometani has been making a name for himself these past couple of years, but mostly in smaller films. This is quite a big step for him and one he totally aced. His calm yet slightly cocky demeanor makes him one of the most interesting characters in the film. Other notable performances come from Xuan Huang, Yuqi Zhang and Sandrine Pinna. It was also quite fun seeing Hiroshi Abe, but truth be told, he's a bit underused here. All in all a solid and commendable cast, but Sometani is the clear stand-out.
While Legend of the Demon Cat is set up as a murder mystery, the film isn't all that occupied with building up the mystery and tension. The story acts more like a simple framework that guides the characters from one lush set piece to the other. It's hardly a spoiler that once again the big reveal centers around a couple of tragic lovers, so it's best not to go in expecting lots of sidelining maneuvers and major plot twists. Instead, plan for a historic drama with some fantastical touches, embedded in mountains of eye candy.
Somewhere along the line China fumbled in balancing out CG and traditional cinematography. While Kaige Chen was one of the first offenders, he's righting his wrongs with Legend of the Demon Cat. The film is a visual wonder that offers plenty of entertainment. While the story is adequate and the acting on point, it's really just a trip through the magnificent universe that Chen conjures up. Whether that's enough for you is personal of course, but I was pleasantly surprised and wowed by Chen's latest.