Legend Of The Demon Cat is a visual treat with a messy story

Huang Xuan (left) and Shota Sometani try to unravel mysterious deaths in Legend Of The Demon Cat. PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT



129 minutes/Opens today

3 stars

The story: Set in the Tang dynasty, the appearance of an evil black cat causes a string of mishaps and strange deaths, including the ruling emperor's. Poet Bai Letian (Huang Xuan) and monk Kukai (Shota Sometani) set out to unravel the mystery behind the events.

In an age when every Chinese fantasy blockbuster is overrun by terrible CGI, it is nice to know that some directors are still adamant about going the traditional route.

Acclaimed film-maker Chen Kaige was such a stickler for using real sets in this movie that he spent six years building a mega ancient city set so big, it will eventually be transformed into an amusement park.

The hordes of people in the background here are all real, too, as the film employed more than 1,200 extras for a single scene.

The only CGI used is for small details - probably most often for when the star of the show, a real furry black cat, refused to do the director's bidding.

There is none of that shoddy, over-the-top visual effects mayhem seen in films such as L.O.R.D: Legend Of Ravaging Dynasties (2016) and League Of Gods (2016) - and for that, one is grateful.

Knowing that this is a film by Chen, however, who helmed the sumptuous Palme d'Or winner Farewell My Concubine (1993), he is not about to skimp on the visuals, with or without the help of computer graphics.

His use of colour in the tragic birthday banquet here is particularly breathtaking - full of rich reds that symbolise everything from passion to fire and, ultimately, blood.

But he put so much thought into the look of the film that he appears to have been less meticulous with the story.

It starts on a promising note, with the first half being an intriguing murder mystery - the emperor has just been killed and all signs point to his heir being the next target.

But by the later half, everything spirals out of control and too many new sub-plots and side characters are introduced.

Suddenly, the story has nothing to do with the dead emperor at all, but about the bizarre death of famed concubine Yang Guifei from three decades earlier, which is completely unveiled through an extended flashback.

Had it been told as a separate story in a different film altogether, it may have worked, but its link to the main characters from the first part of the movie is weak.

By the time the identity of the titular demon cat is finally revealed, it is not satisfying enough to justify the two-hour-plus running time, despite how beautiful everything looks.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline Legend Of The Demon Cat is a visual treat with a messy story. Subscribe