Film & TV

Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat Is Astonishing

Legend of the Demon Cat
China and Japan beat Marvel in cinema’s trade war, producing a fairy tale that’s spectacular and also adult.

The Marvel Comics Universe epitomizes how sci-fi comic-book fantasy has become an obsession unto itself. But something is missing, and that lost essence inspires Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat, the latest proof that China’s pop filmmakers continue to outclass the MCU.

Think of it as a creative trade war, where action vs. myth, and American commercialism, having abandoned the moral tradition, is failing. But Chen’s new film is a spectacular win.

It’s a fable with modern parallels: There’s unrest in the capital Chang’an City during the Tang dynasty of the seventh century. After the mysterious death of the emperor (who has not closed his eyes for a week), aspiring poet Bai Letian (Huang Xuan) is assigned as the court scribe to chronicle the leader’s legacy and a series of strange killings that occur. A Japanese exorcist, the shaman Kukai (Shota Sometani), is brought in to assist Bai in tracking down a sinister cat. Together, they investigate the history behind the feline’s mysterious tragedies.

In other words, a political metaphor is examined for its spiritual essence. Kukai is told, “Behind the illusion is reality,” and this key line unlocks the film’s many visual, sensual wonders.

***

At long last, the famous maxim of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance –“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” (recently reenacted in Glenn Close’s ludicrous The Wife) — gets corrected. Chen’s epic explores ancient times and forgotten traditions in constantly unfolding sequences that imaginatively reawaken a sense of the passions and jealousies that define human experience.

No Marvel movie has shown such a natural connection to political history (certainly not the puerile Black Panther). Truth is, no Star Wars movie, especially its asinine reboots, ever took much inspiration from American political history. These franchises (like Peter Jackson’s degraded adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) were simply designed to coddle the juvenile market.

As a major $200 million Chinese-Japanese co-production, Legend of the Demon Cat is clearly designed for commercial purposes. It belongs to xianxia, a Chinese genre derived from wuxia (the martial-arts genre familiar to Americans through films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But unlike American comic-book and sci-fi blockbusters, this is not mere escapism but is grounded in historical and humane principles.

When Disney attempted to upgrade Star Wars, the franchise was put into Ron Howard’s mediocre hands, but Legend of the Demon Cat benefits from Chen, whose best films Farewell, My Concubine, Together, The Promise, Sacrifice, and Caught in the Web are marked by adult sophistication.

Bai and Kukai represent two motives: the former’s is career ambition; the latter’s, spiritual interests. Yet they share fascination with the cultural wonders that Chen visualizes with relentless panache. A scene in which Bai unlocks a treasure chest with many doors symbolizes the effect of Chen’s successive sequences that revisit the past and then reveal new vistas: The Feast of Supreme Joy, The Pavilion of Swirling Petals, the Drowned Forest.

Chen gives a fairy-tale tone to this ghost story yet always goes deeper into the issues of love, death, trust and envy, loyalty and betrayal. There’s striking sensuality to Kitty Zhang (from Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid) as Chunqin reciting a poem from a rooftop; or Sandrine Pinna as Lady Yang undulating catlike when she walks; or the ambisexual twinship of the rascally acrobats Red and White Crane. Each character converges in the demon cat’s vengeful legend, which starts with a Garden of Eden image and then takes on interpersonal sensuality, which Chen learned from his mentor Bernardo Bertolucci and complements honorably.

Chen’s imagery moves fast, but it’s not the trivial video-game speed of Aquaman that camouflaged emptiness; such visual details as a theatrical troupe’s shadows dancing on a ceiling or fireworks reflected in nighttime pools work in opposite ways from those Marvel and Star Wars effects-driven scenes that lower the imagination. Chen revives Bertolucci’s editing rhythm, and the always kinetically surprising angles keep the imagery linked to realistic human perception. When the fantastic is used to evoke the psychology of the imagination, Chen’s mystery and revelation attain Fritz Langian proportions. Legend of the Demon Cat has what no Marvel or Star Wars film can claim: astonishment. These visions surpass a Marvel endgame because, as Bai tells Kukai, “the emotions are true.”

 

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Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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