Kûkai was like the Japanese Xuanzang (of Journey to the West immortality). He really did travel to China in search of Buddhist teachings. As amateur sleuths go, he inspires a good deal of confidence. That is not necessarily true of the great Tang poet Bai Juyi, but Kûkai needs somebody familiar with all of the capitol city’s brothels. Together, they will solve a mystery with supernatural implications in Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
Technically, it is not really a whodunit. The demonic cat did it—and he will do it a lot more. The question is why. Kûkai first finds traces of its nefarious activity when he is summoned to exorcise the emperor. Unfortunately, he arrives too late, but immediately suspects the furry demon. He also meets Bai Juyi, who is about to resign his post as the court recorder. It is from Bai that Kûkai hears gossip of a strange cat tormenting the household of the captain of the imperial guard. From there, they are off like Holmes and Watson on the trail of Captain Chen, which naturally runs through an elegant brothel.
In fact, it is fortunate they are there, so Kûkai can treat Chen’s former favorite, who is mysteriously afflicted with paranormal parasites. However, they really catch a break when they discover the diary of Nakamaro Abe, a Japanese expat, who watched the Emperor’s favorite concubine, Yang Guifei, meet her sad end. In an almost Shakespearean paradox, everybody at court loved her, especially including Abe, but she was doomed to die as a Marie Antoinette scapegoat. Of course, the cat is still rather ticked off about what happened, but to be fair, it did go down rather badly.
Frankly, it is hard to believe this is a Chen Kaige film, because it is relatively short on melodrama, but long on spectacle. It looks more like a Tsui Hark remake of Ghost Cat of Otama Pond. The fact that it is a Chinese-Japanese co-production is also a minor miracle. See, we can all get along after all. Regardless, it is a big film, with big sets, and big effects, and a weirdly idiosyncratic narrative based on Baki Yumemakura’s Japanese novel.
There are a lot of entertaining aspects to Demon Cat, starting with the laidback, unforced buddy chemistry that develops between Kûkai and Bai. Instead of bickering and bantering, they gently tease each other and eventually really start to open up and talk honestly. Shota Sometani is truly terrific as Kûkai, in a sly, understated kind of way. Huang Xuan plays off him nicely as Bai, but the character does not have the same heft and dimension. Sad-eyed Hiroshi Abe radiates heartsickness as his morose namesake, while Sandrine Pinna is radiantly regal yet acutely tragic as Lady Yang.
Perhaps most importantly, Demon Cat vividly demonstrates how cool Buddhist monks can be. This is a messy, sprawling film, so it might be that sum of its parts is greater than its whole, but it would be a crying shame to miss those parts. There are at least half a dozen scenes viewers are sure to be talking about afterward. Highly recommended as a visually lavish jaunt into Tang-era intrigue and supernatural hijinks, Legend of the Demon Cat screens tonight (9/13) and Saturday (9/15) as part of this year’s TIFF.