The mythology of the cat in Western cultures reaches back to Greek tales of the chimera (illusions), the sphinx (riddles about humanity), and the Nemean Lion, or Leo (prophetic zodiac interpretations). “Legend of the Demon Cat,” the latest film by Chinese filmmaker Kaige Chen (“Farewell My Concubine”), reaches back into the Tang Dynasty (705) in the Republic of China to bring to fantastical life on the screen real-life characters from Chinese and Japanese history. Chinese poet Bai Letian (Xuan Huang), a social activist who used his verse to critique corruption and military rule, hooks up with Buddhist monk Kūkai aka Kōbō-Daishi, the grand master who propagated the Buddhist teaching and founded the Shingon or “True Word” school of Buddhism, played by Shôta Sometani. Together they must investigate the trail of a supernatural talking cat that leads to the mysterious death of Lady Yang Guifei, a notorious beauty and concubine, who is accused of weakening the great Tang emperor Xuanzong.
The film opens with a single cherry as large as an apple from the Garden of Eden, dropping from a beautiful tree, and when it hits the ground it’s as though a large balloon of blood splatters, filling the house of Xuanzong with dreaded fears of a supernatural being, a cat that talks in a low male voice, curses of a poetic and spiritual nature. Talking to our concubine, he instructs her to dig up the great wealth under the tree and present it to her lover. He, of course, spends it on power and immortality, a quest for all males at the time, and the curse is set. What follows is a constantly moving investigation of the house in all its detailed splendor, through cabinets that lead to other cabinets, that open to other cabinets, as though a great mystery of power and romanticism existed in rooms discovered inside other rooms that finally leads us into a cave, where the secret of the concubine is finally revealed with tear-jerking sentiment.
This huge, $200 million film production, co-produced by China, Hong Kong and Japan, spends every dime on bringing to life the lavish reality of illusion in the mythological world of the Tang Dynasty. What we learn is how powerful the female is over men, whose goals are immortality, lust and physical power.
Based on the Xianxia novel genre influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, we get a sensationalized version of great supernatural proportions about a time when fantasies of immortality, strength and great wealth ruled the imaginations of an entire Asian culture. Reality is merely an illusion performed by magicians (filmmakers?) who have control over our thoughts, our actions and, ultimately, our entire way of life. Chen suggests that the world we live in is an ever-changing truth that plays tricks on us at every turn, challenging us to believe in anything as absolute as a watermelon. As a fantasy, this film blames it all on the elusive cat, whose trail leaves us with fish and militia playboys, whose eyes have been hideously sucked out by the teeth and claws of greed, lechery and corruption.
Show times at the Plaza MAC: Thursday, Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 9, 10:30 a.m.