The current decade has seen China’s film market rise to heights exceeded only by Hollywood; in 2017, box-office earnings grew nearly 13.45 percent year-on-year to a splendiferous 55.9 billion yuan ($8.6 billion). This bonanza has spurred massive investment and fueled out-sized ambitions.
One of the biggest projects in both those areas is “Legend of the Demon Cat” (Japanese title: “Ku-kai: Utsukushiki Ohi no Nazo”). Based on a four-volume novel by Baku Yumemakura that unfolds at the height of the Tang dynasty (618-907), this fantasy/mystery had a production budget of $170 million, much of which was spent on spectacular visual effects and a meticulous reconstruction of the ancient capital of Chang’an. Taking six years to build, this huge open set is scheduled to be converted into a theme park.
The creative engine behind this extravaganza — which opened in China in December and in Japan on Feb. 24 — is Chen Kaige. The 65-year-old director has won critical accolades in the West, including a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993 for his drama “Farewell My Concubine,” but he is also known for historical/fantasy epics, such as “The Promise” (2005) and “Monk Comes Down the Mountain” (2015) that target larger mainstream audiences.
“Legend of the Demon Cat” is an international co-production backed by media conglomerate Kadokawa Corp., and it features several big-name Japanese actors, beginning with Shota Sometani as the young monk Kukai (a real-life figure who has achieved semi-legendary status as a propagator of Buddhism in Japan).
After surviving a perilous voyage to China (graphically depicted in a genuine rocking boat), Kukai journeys to Chang’an and becomes friends with poet Bai Letian (Huang Xuan), another actual person who is best known for the narrative poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow.” Together they investigate the mystery of a talking black cat — and its connection to the tragic death of an imperial consort named Yang (Sandrine Pinna) 30 years earlier.
Speaking to The Japan Times in Tokyo just before the film’s opening here, Chen says he was attracted to the era because it represents “the best of Chinese history,” with a cultural flowering and openness seldom equaled since.
“The Tang dynasty welcomed people from everywhere in the world to settle down in the capital city, Chang’an,” Chen says. “A Japanese guy could travel to China and become a government official. You can’t do that today, right? It’s impossible.”
Chen is referring to Abe no Nakamaro (Hiroshi Abe), a Japanese scholar who rises high in the government ranks under Emperor Xuanzong (Zhang Luyi) and falls in love with imperial favorite Yang. He also holds a key to the mystery Kukai and Bai Letian are trying to solve.
Chen has been criticized online by Chinese fans of Yang, who object to his casting of the half-French, half-Taiwanese Pinna in the role. He in turn has nothing but scorn for his critics.
“They say, ‘No, how can she be mixed?’ But at that time, 1,300 years ago, that was natural,” he explains. “You could have beauties from the Middle East or Central Asia. People were equal.”
Chen hopes the film’s international flavor, with many non-Chinese actors in major roles, will help it to “really travel to not only different countries, but also to different cultures.”
“I think I treated all (the cast members) equally,” he adds. “They are all professionals.”
Chen was of a different mind when he first met Sometani in Tokyo, however.
“He was not tall enough for me and lacked power in his eyes,” Chen recalls. “The only thing he said to me was, ‘If I cut my hair, I’m confident about the shape of my head.'”
Sometani turned out to be right: When Chen later saw him with his head shaved, he says with a laugh that, “He looked like the cartoon character Ikkyu-san, so I said, ‘Oh my, that’s him, that’s my Kukai.'”
Chen became even more impressed as he worked with the 25-year-old actor on the set. He remembers telling Sometani that, despite his young age, “An old soul lives in your body.” When the actor asked why Chen thought that, he told him it was because he is so calm all the time.
“He is not playing Kukai, he is Kukai himself,” Chen says. “There’s always a little smile in the corner of his mouth … his emotions are very subtle. I really enjoyed his performance very much, he knows when to start and when to stop.”
Known for his sumptuous visual style, Chen frames his two heroes in an eighth-century Chang’an that looks like a gorgeous dream. The emperor and his court may support Bai’s poetry and other arts, but they are also living in a riot of color and spectacle, recorded by the swirling, swooping camera.
Chen, however, says the film’s visual splendor serves a purpose that goes beyond just being audience eye candy.
“China has become very economically strong, and will become stronger in the future,” he says, “but I have to ask myself, what price do we pay for that? We’re losing our own traditional culture. So that’s why in this movie you can see how beautiful it was in that period, how much people respected the culture.”
He also makes no apologies for the film’s intoxicating plunges into a fantasy of luxury and beauty.
“Why not? We’re spending two hours living in a beautiful dream. I know that sooner or later we’ll wake up but at least we can say ‘I was there,'” he says.
In its second half the film enters the realm of horror when Kukai and Bai pursue Yang’s trail to a palace fallen to ruins and inhabited by ghosts. There they learn about a love that lives beyond the grave, leading the protagonists to a stone sarcophagus that closes on Kukai after he climbs inside to investigate — a scary moment that shakes him out of his Buddhist calm.
“Ultimately (the film) is about love,” Chen says. “Love existed even before humans came to this world. I really believe it. Why is every tree different from the others? And why do leaves come out from the branches? Why does it rain, why does it snow? Why is everything so beautiful? Love. The whole world, the whole universe is controlled by love.
“But sometimes love can be destroyed. There is the opposite of love: hate. That’s the kind of story I’m always trying to tell. I’m always trying to make my movies meaningful. You can make that story simpler, right? Mine is too rich. I think that’s my weakness. But I do what I believe is right.”
“Legend of the Demon Cat” is now playing in cinemas nationwide.