Chen Kaige builds a city to film Legend Of The Demon Cat

Shota Sometani (left) and Huang Xuan star in The Legend Of The Demon Cat.
Shota Sometani (left) and Huang Xuan star in The Legend Of The Demon Cat.PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT
Shota Sometani (left) and Huang Xuan star in The Legend Of The Demon Cat.
Chen Kaige

Director Chen Kaige used real locations and props to make his new film The Legend Of The Demon Cat

In an age when Chinese fantasy blockbusters are constantly outdoing one another in the computer-generated imagery (CGI) department, veteran director Chen Kaige insisted on doing things the traditional way when making his new epic movie The Legend Of The Demon Cat.

That means that he used real locations and props to shoot most of his scenes, including the construction, from scratch, of a 2.23 sq km ancient Chinese city set in a Hubei swampland.

The city set is so grand and detailed that it will be converted into an amusement park for tourists in the future.

The film-maker also had more than 20,000 trees planted in the area and hired more than 1,000 extras to populate a single scene.

The entire process was so laborious that the film cost US$170 million (S$225 million) to produce and six years to complete.

In an e-mail interview with The Straits Times, the 65-year-old film-maker, who is known for his visual aesthetics in films such as Farewell My Concubine (1993), says: "I think I can get the proper atmosphere and feel of the place only if I use real sets and locations, and audiences deserve that sense of authenticity. That is why I insisted on spending six years to finish this huge undertaking.

"For most people, the idea of making a movie over six years sounds completely inconceivable. For me, however, I enjoyed every part of the process."

He adds that he "has yet to feel at ease" making an entire movie using just a green screen.

The use of CGI, he says - whether in his own work or otherwise - should never be seen as the main focus of a film anyway.

"I think CGI is just one of the ways a film can use to tell a story, but it shouldn't be the only thing people look at to judge a film. Besides CGI, films have to have heart and emotions."

Adapted from Yoneyama Mineo's novel Samana Kukai, his new film is a fantasy epic set in China's Tang dynasty, where a mysterious black cat appears to be behind a string of high-profile deaths, including the emperor's.

When the prince looks to be the next target, Buddhist monk Kukai (played by Shota Sometani) and poet Bai Letian (Huang Xuan) set out to solve the case, only to uncover a dark secret from the past involving imperial consort Yang Guifei (Sandrine Pinna).

Although the story is clearly fictional, many of the characters are based on real historical figures, including Yang.

As she is such an iconic character, the director admits that he went through a bit of trouble trying to find the best way to portray her on the big screen.

"When we were prepping for the movie, casting Yang Guifei was indeed very challenging. I decided to go with one version of historical texts that suggested that she had northern tribal ancestry and I believe in the authenticity of this account.

"There must have been a good reason that the emperor favoured her over everyone else - perhaps, she could be the bridge between the Tang dynasty court and neighbouring countries."

He adds that Pinna must have "felt a lot of pressure playing her because she needs to portray her as someone who is not overly familiar, but a bit distant".

Pinna, 30, is an actress of mixed ancestry - her father is French while her mother is Taiwanese.

As Chen spent so much time making this new film, you wonder if he will next choose to undertake a less taxing project. But he waves off the notion.

"I don't think about whether a movie is a large-or small-scale production. What I consider is whether I am able to convey what I want to say on to the big screen.

"If I succeed in doing that, then all movies can be seen as blockbusters."

•The Legend Of The Demon Cat is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'Building a city for a movie'. Print Edition | Subscribe