Story: Kukai (Shota Sometani) is a Buddhist monk traveling to China to heal the emperor who seems to be possessed by a demon. Upon arrival the emperor dies, however, and the imperial secretary Bai Letian (Xuan Huang) refuses to put down death by disease in the official reports. Immediately after that, Kukai and Letian find a message saying that the emperor's son will be the next victim. The monk thinks that the cat, which he has seen at court, is the demonic, possessed evildoer. He starts researching in the hope of earning the local Buddhist school's respect and therefore getting access to the Holy Scriptures there. During the investigation of the case he gets help from Letian, who is actually a poet and through his work tried to find out more about the concubine Yang, with whom the emperor was madly in love thirty years ago and who died during a revolution. Kukai and Letian find more and more evidence that the concubine's death, the murders and the talking demonic cat are somehow connected. The cat seems to take revenge for Yang and systematically picks out its victims. Indeed, the monk and the poet manage to catch the cat red-handed and they find out more about the background of the killings. Apparently, the murdering can only be stopped by uncovering the entire truth behind them.
Review: Chen Kaige might be one of China's most overrated directors. At least when it comes to his commercial work. His tendency to celebrate himself is the reason why in the end he also crashes and burns with "Legend of the Demon Cat". What poses a problem is not the story - to the contrary - it is the movies imagery, for which most critics praise him. It might be full of magic and the pictures seem like they come right out of a fairy tale, but they hardly serve the plot. Therefore, this otherwise rather entertaining fantasy-thriller seems more like a music video paired with an arthouse flick. Apart from the fact that the movie seems pretty accessible and even offers some interesting characters, it is just surprising that Chen insistently wants to let his pictures talk, and by doing so, he destroys the story's flow. In fact, some scenes even seem completely out of place within the plot.
Even at the beginning, we are presented with some extraordinary pictures, which almost resemble a dream sequence. The only problem is that this dream world overlaps reality too much, so that those two sides simply don't work together. A demonic cat jumps around in a room, only to then disappear into the paper wall as a two-dimensional creature. Melons seem to magically grow out of the ground. Soon, we realize that the world shown to us here, is clearly an illusion. But illusions call reality into existence. This approach could even have been a nice metaphor and could have had us question our perception of reality, but instead we get a magic show full of exuberant grandeur and creativity. But what for? Its only purpose is to give Chen the opportunity to use his 25 million budget. Bright colors, magnificent sets, magical moments - all this comes across like a magic show: tacky. Surely, it is not helpful that most of the special effects were created on a computer.
In comparison to Chen Kaige's "The Promise", the special effects may be more convincing but they are simply just that: special effects. This would have been fine if they hadn't used them all over the place. The demonic cat might move convincingly, but it is still clearly generated on a computer. Of course, it wouldn't have been better to alternate between a CGI cat and a real one but it still seems unnecessary to digitally animate every single animal on screen. Because of its fantastic origin, the story demands some extraordinary visuals, but most of the time, "Legend of the Demon Cat" seems too cluttered with colorful and "enchanting" pictures. However, behind those pictures lies a pretty neat idea. Love, sacrifice and loss are the movie's central themes and they are woven into a plot around the chase after a murderer. The killer has supernatural roots and some scenes seem almost creepy because of that, but this does not get into the way of the classical hunt for evidence.
The story is based on a four-part novel written by Baku Yumemakura, in which two historical people are reinterpreted: Kukai, aka Kobo-Daishi, who initiated the Shingonshu-School of Buddhism, and Bai Juyi, a famous Chinese poet. Shota Sometani ("Parasyte") portrays his role in a slightly mischievous way without ever losing his roots as a monk, though. This is really refreshing. Huang Xuan ("Extraordinary Mission") is rather lyrical as a poet, but never seems ridiculous as such, and he also manages to balance these situations out with some more serious moments. During the first half of the movie, the two protagonists also develop a nice chemistry. The events are narrated in a gripping way and there are constantly new revelations, which make the "case" become more and more epic. Despite the movie's focus on its imagery, which in general is also quite nice, it is still a lot of fun to watch "Legend of the Demon Cat". Even if you can't ignore the ridiculousness of a demonic cat, the movie still turned out rather well up until a certain point.
However, during the second part of the movie, the fantasy-thriller kind of falls apart. The tragic story is told from another point of view and the jump into the past turns into a trial of patience because the magic show happening there is just full of pomp and visual narcissism. If you are generous, you might say the director gets his act together towards the end, but the movie still feels too fragmented. Even the otherwise nice pace and a wonderful score by Klaus Badelt ("Pirates of the Caribbean") can't change that. When you are watching it, the story is rather compelling and it almost seems as if there were more things to praise than to criticize. But once the credits roll, you are in for a reality check. "Legend of the Demon Cat" does not really know what it wants to be. This leaves a bad aftertaste, which almost makes it impossible to seriously recommend this otherwise well-done movie. You can expect more, especially from Chen Kaige. I'm thinking of "The Emperor and the Assassin" here. Or maybe his ship has sailed a long time ago?