Japanese monk Kukai (Shôta Sometani) is summoned to Chang'an, dazzling capital city of Tang dynasty China, where the ailing Emperor (Edward Zhang) seems in need of his skills as a renowned exorcist. Alas, he arrives too late. The Emperor lies dead. In his chamber Kukai finds suspicious cat hair. Unsure how to correctly document the Emperor's passing, poet and scholar Bai Leitian (Huang Xuan) teams up with Kukai to investigate a string of mysterious incidents and murders orchestrated by a malevolent demon cat. Gradually they trace the mystery from palace guard Chen Yunqiao (Qin Hao) whose lovely wife Chunqin (Kitty Zhang Yuqi) falls under the cat's spell to the tragic fate of the Emperor's beloved concubine, Lady Yang (Sandrine Pinna) who happens to be the muse behind Bai's magnum opus.
Ever since Painted Skin (2008) brought Chinese ghost stories back with a vengeance the succession of supernatural sagas have grown grander and grander. Here former art-house darling Chen Kaige continues his recent run of big-budget, effects-heavy fantasy epics entrancing the Chinese audience even as disgruntled western fans lament the passing of his earlier, more grounded political fables. Based on a novel by prolific Japanese sci-fi writer Baku Yumemakura (real name Mineo Yoneyama) Legend of the Demon Cat won a slew of awards in Asia including supporting actress gongs for Sandrine Pinna and Kitty Zhang Yuqi. Yet, as with the Weinstein Company's mangled release of Chen's earlier fantasy epic The Promise (2005) (in retrospect the least of Harvey's offenses) flew by unnoticed outside Asia.
More hybrid murder mystery-cum-tragic-supernatural romance than the eerie ghost story it is set up to be, Legend of the Demon Cat, as with most Asian fantasies, requires a receptive palette. Melded to a lavish budget, Kaige's pictorial gifts yield stunning results with sets, costumes and digital effects cranked up to levels that tread a fine line between wondrously operatic and OTT camp. The closest comparison might be Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), another case of an acclaimed auteur mounting a full-throttle take on a traditional 'ghost story.' Viewers either unaccustomed or resistant to the deliberate artifice of Asian fantasy cinema may well balk at the sight of characters cowering from a talking computer animated feline. Yet as always the effects are meant to be expressionistic not realistic. And in truth the CGI cat gives an emotive, even moving performance.
That said, unlike the livelier, looser Hong Kong genre outings, this suffers the familiar mainland overdose of stoic, colourless protagonists embodied by poised, prettified actors. Imported Japanese star Shôta Sometani, so good in Parasyte The Movie (2014), is saddled with a stolid and solemn character that rarely requires him to alter his serene expression. Overladen with stoically handsome male leads all of whom seem to be in love with Lady Yang - including eternally youthful international heartthrob Hiroshi Abe - the plot struggles to settle on one focal point. Kukai and Bai Leitian function as a Holmes and Watson duo with an earthly/otherworldly dynamic that on occasion also evokes the relationship central to Chen's masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (1993). At its heart the story deals with reality versus illusion with Bai enraptured by a romantic ideal that inspires his art while Kukai is only interested in truth. Like Dana Andrews in Laura (1944), Bai (along with several of the film's other male characters - including the cat!) has fallen in love with a dead woman. Or at least a facsimile conjured by legends.
Throughout an overlong film Chen indulges in convoluted detail, including a flashback to Kukai's perilous sea voyage, that hobbles the plot's momentum. Even so, those willing to persevere will be rewarded with some truly magical sequences and a mystery that unravels in a fascinating direction with a few neat allusions to Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat.