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Legend of the Demon Cat
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by Jay Seaver

"A gorgeous (if sort of silly) bit of dark fantasy."
3 stars

In terms of figuring out how to recommend the would-be Chinese blockbuster "Legend of the Demon Cat", it's probably somewhere closer to fantasy than horror, but if so, it's more the sort of movie that falls into empty space between genres than straddling the border. Maybe that's a matter of the Mainland market being a tricky needle to thread - Chinese filmmakers can do fantasy adventure/romance or thrillers but mixing the two is dicey - but they knew that going in, and sometimes have a little trouble figuring what else to do with this story if they can't do that.

The film opens with the cat in question appearing to Chunqin (Kitty Zhang Yu-Qi), wife of the head of the palace guards, telepathically saying that there's a fortune buried on the grounds, and he'll say where for some melon. Creeped out but greedy, she assents, and soon she and husband Chen Yunqiao (Eric Qin Hao) are living the high life. In the palace, Japanese monk Kukai (Shota Sometani) has been called to perform an exorcism on the palace, with the Emperor passing just as Kukai gets started and discovers a trail of paw-prints leading away from the chamber. Scribe Bai Leitian (Huang Xuan) is told to record that the emperor died from "illness" but still wants to record the truth for his own records. Bai and Kukai eventually discover a link to events of 30 years earlier, when the much-beloved concubine Yang Gufei (Sandrine Pinna) of Emperor Li (Edward Zhang Lu-Yi) - a romance chronicled by Bai's poetic idol Li Bo (Xin Bai-Qing) - was buried with her beloved cat. But there's got to be more than that..

It's more than a bit of an outdated cliché these days to say that China is still playing catch-up in some areas but is unmatched when they can throw sheer manpower at a problem, and that's often the feel here: There are bits of effects work that sometimes look not-quite-right - there's not much more frustrating than something described by characters as "an illusion" that is obvious CGI - but the production design is gloriously elaborate, a city full of colorful multi-level sets that the camera moves through easily. It's a bright, gorgeous film that is as lush as any historical epic, and when co-writer/director Chen Kaige gets a mind to, he'll present something unnerving about the elaborate symmetry on display or show how what looks vibrant in one context is tacky in another. There aren't a lot of shadows here, which makes the spot where Bai and Kukai find actual darkness a bit chillier.

That said, it's worth noting that for all some of the digital effects aren't quite there, the Demon Cat himself is actually very impressive and smartly used. The black fur makes the shadows and lighting a little easier, and the choice to not bother with the lips moving as he speaks is a step back from the uncanny valley, even as the big eyes and slightly exaggerated body language makes him a bit more expressive. Hayao Miyazaki did something similar in Kiki's Delivery Service and it still works. This is a demon that could just be ridiculous, and scores some points on the absurdity of this extremely pettable kitty being so dangerous, but he hits a nice sweet spot between human, animal, and demon.

And yet, oddly, Kaige takes a long time to find something to drive the movie. It's one thing to play up Bai and Kukai as mismatched partners who quickly fall in with each other, and why not - Huang Xuan and Japanese star Shota Sometani are fun together - but they seem to spend more time playing off each other rather than having a sense of urgency, curious but not motivated. By the time they get to the point where they've learned enough to know what's going on, the direct connection is gone. Sandrinne Pinna does good work in making Yang the sort of woman who could make men motivated if not crazy, even if there's nobody around her quite so compelling. Hiroshi Abe shows up in flashbacks to try and sell that, although it sometimes comes across more like the Japanese co-producers wanting a little more that they could sell to their audience.

There's no rule that says a horror movie can't be pretty or kind of silly - and this has a lot of the same DNA as a certain sort of Hong Kong horror even if it doesn't spend a lot of time actively trying to scare - but "Demon Cat" winds up a little too detached. It's a joy to look at (the 4K disc from Hong Kong is gorgeous), but could use a little more melodrama to match its production values.

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originally posted: 06/23/21 13:27:40
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  22-Dec-2017 (M)

Directed by
  Kaige Chen

Written by
  Hui-Ling Wang
  Kaige Chen

  Xuan Huang
  Shota Sometani
  Hao Qin
  Kitty Zhang
  Sandrine Pinna

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