I had intended to celebrate the release of Strange Tales of Songling by devoting a month to reviews of relevant movies. However, I was caught up getting the print edition ready and didn't have time in February. The good news is Strange Tales is now available in print. So I am resuming my reviews with a film called Legend of the Demon Cat.
I almost didn't want to watch this movie. Not because I don't like the genre or subject matter but because I've seen so many films with posters and marketing like this one in the last year that were hugely disappointing. I am very glad I gave Legend of the Demon Cat a chance.
Legend of the Demon Cat was directed by Chen Kaige and released in 2017. It stars Huang Xuan, Shota Sometani, and Sandrine Pinna. Set in the Tang Dynasty it is about a mystery surrounding a cat demon whose origin is bound up in the death of Lady Yang. Because it is a mystery I won't give too many more plot details beyond that, and simply say it uses history, and historical figures, to paint a tale of illusion and magic.
This is a beautiful film. It is colorful and transports you into a whole other world. While it actually doesn't rely as heavily on CG as other movies (my understanding is that the sets were extensive and real), whether or not it succeeds still hinges on the viewers reaction to the CG that is used. The CG is important for establishing the supernatural. I found myself enchanted by it, though there were brief moments when the CG faltered and the illusion broke. However, on the whole thought the special effects and cinematography created something memorable and appealing.
The sets and costumes were also astounding. These are what really pull you into the movie in my opinion. For the film they constructed a city (which will eventually be turned into a theme park). It is rich and believable world, filled with beauty and illusion. One thing Legend of the Demon Cat does well, perhaps better than any other film I've seen in a long time, is make you feel like you are there walking in the time and place the character's inhabit. It is highly immersive, and you get a real sense of the layout of buildings and other structures. It takes you Tang Dynasty Chang'an and lets you move through historical architecture in a way I haven't experienced before. This helped make for a solid foundation, which I think helped when they began taking more visual liberties to enhance the atmosphere.
At its heart this is a mystery and I enjoyed following the two main protagonists, a Japanese monk named Kukai, and the poet Bai Leitian. It takes place decades after Lady Yang's death and as they uncover more clues, we are told the backstory through a series of cleverly done flashbacks.
I enjoyed the flashbacks to events surrounding Lady Yang's death. Beginning with a gorgeous banquet, then the An Lushan Rebellion, which instigates much of the drama. I like too, how Bei Leitian and Kukai are able to imagine these sequences as they find diaries, interview witnesses and investigate the places involved. It brings everything together nicely.
The film is at times creepy, but also moving. As I said earlier, much of the film hinges on the audience's reaction to the CG and one place this is particularly the case, is with the Demon Cat itself. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just make the observation that the movie portrays the cat sympathetically. I thought the CG with the cat was effective in this respect.
I found the Cat Demon's backstory intriguing, and I think it made for a much more compelling villain than I expected. The nature of the creature is also unusual enough that you don't really understand what it is or how it came to be until the end.
Sometimes a sympathetic villain can detract from the horror of a movie. Legend of the Demon Cat does a good job of using the villain's sympathy to make it more menacing. This isn't a pure horror movie, much of it is intrigue, drama, and fantasy. But I enjoyed its dips into horror territory and felt these were helped by the other aspects of the movie.
In terms of gaming I think there is a lot in this movie that would work at the table. It definitely gave me a few adventure ideas and certain elements I'll be using for horror purposes.
Above all I believe, the most useful thing gamers will find is probably a sense of the interiors of structures and the layout of the architecture. This is something movies often give disjointed glimpses of, and you can't always fit the pieces together. Here you have a much better idea of the flow of rooms and their function.
I loved Legend of the Demon Cat. I went in expecting to be mildly disappointed but was surprised by experience and reminded of Chen Kaige's enormous talent. It does take its time. It occasionally lingers and meanders, but I didn't mind because I wanted to experience more of the world it was creating. I like this movie the way I like Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula or a Baz Lurhmann film, because it feels like a place you can touch and taste. But that is also to say, this movie might not be for everyone. I realize am especially drawn to movies that have this effect. I would still strongly recommend it to people. Just for the sets alone it is worth viewing. And it is a thrilling mystery that blurs the lines between magic, beauty and illusion in a captivating way.