One of the ‘fifth generation’ of Chinese directors, whose first film, 1984’s Yellow Earth, brought Chinese cinema to the attention of the entire world, Chen Kaige’s career has alternated moments of vast creativity with uninspired periods and flops. In his most recent film, The Legend of the Demon Cat, the director finds once again his characteristic narrative skill and voice.
The film, a costume thriller, is an adaptation of Shamon Kukai Tou no Kuni nite Oni to Utagesu (lit. ‘Monk Kukai’s Feast of the Ghosts of the Tang Dynasty’), a long four-volume novel by Japanese author Yumemakura Baku. It tells the story of the investigation conducted by a Japanese monk and a Chinese poet into the curse carried by a black cat that sows destruction and death at the Tang imperial court. The characters are based on real historical figures: the monk Kukai was the founder of the Shingonshu Buddhist sect and Bai Juyi is one of the greatest Chinese poets. Kukai, who is also an exorcist, arrives from Japan in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang empire, to study the tantric codes, but is summoned to the imperial court to treat the emperor Dezong, who is in the grip of delirium and dies soon afterwards. Bai Letian is an imperial scribe who would like to devote himself to poetry and is secretly working on a poem about the eternal love of the former emperor Xuanzong for the imperial concubine Yang Guifei, who has become a symbol of beauty and sensuality in China. Kukai immediately realises that a curse hangs over the court, manifested by the presence of a black cat which has already appeared in the house of an important imperial guard. At first, Bai Juyi is skeptical but he gradually becomes convinced that the monk is right and that the mysterious deaths of the emperor and other members of the court – all killed by the cat, which attacks their eyes, causing them to die in atrocious agonies – are related to the death of Yang Guifei, whom Xuanzong had killed to placate a rebellion of the imperial guards. The investigations lead the two to discover the truth behind the death of the famous concubine and at the same time to reflect upon the ultimate nature of truth and illusion and the ineluctable cycle of life and death.
Apart from its pseudo-historical intrigues, the most interesting aspect of the film is its visuals, which offer a wealth of truly memorable images and moods. The construction of the set of Chang’an city – a fundamental part of the narrative structure – required seven years of work, huge financial investment and meticulous attention to detail. The photography, whose fluid movements follow the two protagonists as, while discussing their theories about the curse threatening the empire, they race after one another, traversing squares, canals, markets, courtyards and pavilions in a blaze of powerful images, gives a real feeling of magic to many scenes, especially that of the birthday celebrations of Yang Guifei, who appears on a swing in front of the adoring population.
Franco-Taiwanese actress Sandrine Pinna was chosen to represent the exotic beauty of the concubine and show the charm she exercised not only over the emperor but also over the other members of the court – including a Japanese officer who was madly in love with her and who becomes one of the pieces of the puzzle making up the investigation. It is also worth noting that this is perhaps the first film after years of diplomatic coolness between China and Japan where the protagonist and hero is Japanese.
It has grossed more than 500 million CNY (RMB/yuan), becoming the most successful film directed by Chen Kaige to date.
Chen Kaige (1952, Beijing). Son of director Chen Huai’ai and one of the first members of the Beijing Film Academy after the end of the Cultural Revolution, from which he graduated in 1982. He is one of the most important directors of that institution’s ‘fifth generation’, and was the first to achieve international fame with his debut film Yellow Earth. In 1993 he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Farewell My Concubine. In 2002 he directed a film in English, Killing Me Softly, which proved to be a public and critical failure. 2005’s The Promise marked the beginning of a more eclectic approach in Kaige’s choice of films, as well as his increased attention to the demands of the market. He has also appeared as an actor in several films, including The Last Emperor by Bernardo Bertolucci.
1984 – Yellow Earth
1986 – The Big Parade
1987 – King of the Children
1991 – Life on a String
1993 – Farewell My Concubine
1996 – Temptress Moon
1998 – The Emperor and the Assassin
2002 – Killing Me Softly
2002 – Together
2005 – The Promise
2008 – Forever Enthralled
2010 – Sacrifice
2012 – Caught in the Web
2015 – Monk Comes Down the Mountain
2017 – The Legend of the Demon Cat