Black cats are bad luck in Chen Kaige’s historical fantasy mystery.
“I only eat eyeballs. You know that.”
I enjoy a good period mystery. From Hong Kong’s Detective Dee series to the similarly-titled Korean Detective K, setting a film in the vague past has allowed for a lot of creative freedom, by using historical events, and also in keeping the mystery shrouded in darkness and a thick layer of magic and mysticism. It’s the sort of thing that would be difficult to pull off in a contemporary setting. In the case of Detective Dee, the point is for Dee to find the scientific answer in what appears to be magical murders, but in Legend of the Demon Cat? Well, maybe things aren’t as straightforward here.
Legend of the Demon Cat, based off the book Samana Kukai by Yoneyama Mineo, is set during the Tang Dynasty. In the capital city of Chang’an, peace is disrupted when a strange, magical black cat appears and causes havoc in the lives of people connected to the Emperor. This includes Captain Chen Yunqiao (Qin Hao) and his lover Chunqin (Kitty Zhang), who are haunted by this beast. After the cat appears at a brothel and kills many of Chen’s men, he goes to monk Kukai (Shota Sometani). Teaming up with real-life poet Bai Juyi (Huang Xuan), the two investigates a series of bizarre circumstances. As they delve deeper into the mystery of the Demon Cat, Kukai and Juyi begin to uncover secrets regarding Emperor Xuanzong (Zhang Luyi), his concubine Lady Yang (Sandrine Pinna), and the events that led to her death thirty years ago, during the An Lushan Rebellion.
Ignoring its status as a novel for a second, Legend of the Demon Cat does stay true to a lot of the tropes of the fantasy period mystery in a few ways, including its decision to feature multiple real-life characters, as well as its use of magic as a jumping off point for the mystery. Those familiar with the aforementioned Detective Dee movies will see a few resemblances in Demon Cat, although both films are so wildly different, a comparison would not be fair. This movie definitely dips its toes into the magical side of things a lot more, and as a result gives us a film that is wildly imaginative and unique at times, but sometimes a bit convoluted.
Having not read the book (and having a bit of trouble with finding out anything about it, as IMDb and Wikipedia give different authors), and without much prior knowledge of the Tang dynasty, I can only judge this film of its own accord. I think it’s fair to say that the movie assumes some sort of base knowledge on these events, or the film becomes a bit of a confusing mess for the first half hour. There are a lot of names, and two separate stories (the present day stuff, and the events from 30 years ago), and it’s not easy at first to distinguish the two from each other, who anyone is or how they’re related to one another. Thankfully, it starts to clear up as everything progresses, but it’s clear the fuzziness isn’t the result of the mystery but rather of messy storytelling. Thankfully, the mystery is compelling and allows for the viewer to remain interested throughout even during the more confusing moments.
One of Demon Cat’s best aspects is its production design. There isn’t a single wasted frame here, and every scene is loaded with beautiful costumes and eye-popping landscapes. Director Chen Kaige, probably best known for Farewell My Concubine has a lot of experience with period pieces and handles the material with aplomb, giving us an 8th century China filled with bright colours, expansive cities and beautiful sunsets. Supposedly, director Chen shot only a tiny portion of the film on green screens, instead choosing to go to elaborate lengths to make the capital as real as possible, and it definitely shows. The work put into the production design is often enough to make your forget its frankly unnecessarily long runtime, and without it the film would have suffered a great deal.
As it is, Legend of the Demon Cat is a decent story told in a way which could easily bore a less interested viewer. However, it manages to keep our attention through some good plot moments and tension, a very likeable cast, and an extremely appealing visual style. It’s not my favourite of the Historical Fantasy Mystery genre, but despite its flaws it all comes together neatly at the end, and ultimately leaves you feeling good, and not wanting to scratch your own eyes out.
Verdict: Visually beautiful and mostly satisfying, Legend of the Demon Cat is a solid, if overly long fantasy mystery.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Scratched Eyeballs: Plenty
Confusing end scenes: A couple
Melon: Or is it a fish?
Flashbacks: Too many to count
Legend of the Demon Cat (2017)
Also known as: 妖猫传 Yāo Māo Zhuàn
Director: Chen Kaige
Writers: Yoneyama Mineo (novel, apparently), Kaige Chen, Hui-Ling Wang
Huang Xuan – Bai Juyi
Shota Sometani – Kukai
Kitty Zhang – Chunqin
Qin Hao – Chen Yunqiao
Hiroshi Abe – Abe no Nakamaro
Keiko Matsuzaka – Bai Ling
Liu Haoran – Bai Long
Oho Ou – Dan Long
Zhang Tianai – Huji Yulian
Zhang Luyi – Emperor Xuanzong of Tang
Sandrine Pinna – Lady Yang
Tian Yu – Gao Lishi
Xin Baiqing – Li Bai