Legend of the Demon Cat (Chen Kaige, 2017)

Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat is not what you’d expect it to be. Well, at least not after the first 20 minutes or so, wherein the eponymous feline wreaks havoc on the lives of Tang Dynasty courtiers, promising buried treasure in exchange for fish eyes and then turning to murder. That kind of Strange Tales of a Chinese Studio off-beat horror-comedy kind of thing (the cat talks, oh boy is this a talking cat movie). But after the set-up, the horror dissipates and for long stretches of time, the talking cat is absent. And what we get instead is a moving melodrama based on some real history about the fall of the Tang Dynasty, famously beautiful concubine Yang Kwei-fei, and master of drunken poetry Li Po, plus or minus some eunuchs and a magician or three. Our heroes in exploring this mystery are a Japanese Buddhist monk and an unemployed Imperial Scribe/would-be poet, and they live in a world as lushly gorgeous as anything Chinese CGI has yet been able to muster.

The two tones, that of a deeply romantic melodrama and a talking cat picture, should be, by all conventional rules of movie-making, incompatible. And judging by the film’s reaction in the 14 months since it was originally released back in December, 2017, the combination does not work for most (it’s hard to know where to laugh, I suppose), though it should be noted that it did seem to be greeted positively when it played in Toronto last fall, in a supposed Director’s Cut (I have been unable to find out any details on what did and did not change since the film’s initial release). But I’m weird and I loved it. Because I’m perversely fond of history, I loved how the whole long middle section of the film contains almost no action, but is instead just the monk and the scribe talking about what might have happened thirty years earlier, while gorgeous visions of a lost Golden Age play out on screen. It’s that loss that is at the film’s heart: a movie motivated by people who have had a vision of perfection (a woman, a world, a poem) and lost it, and the anguish that can cause. And it’s about the lengths they’ll go to to bring it back, defying the laws of physics and even death itself for that end.

The film’s vision of the present isn’t quite degraded enough for the dichotomy to work, though. Chen is still as decorous as ever (fans of Farewell My Concubine need have no fear: the costumes here are just as decadently lustrous). Even his lost world, which should be significantly diminished even 30 years after the An Lushan Rebellion, possibly the bloodiest conflict of the entire Middle Ages, looks pretty nice. But, maybe that’s to the point: that even in relatively prosperous times, not unlike our own, the lure of the ideal can still be destructively strong. Maybe it’s time to let the old dreams die.

I opened at random my copy of David Hinton’s translation of Selected Poems of Li Po, looking for something to tie into this lovely, sad, weird movie. This is what I found:

Making My Way Toward Yeh-lang in Exile, I Remember Walking
Among Peach Blossoms Long Ago at Autumn River

Peaches in blossom, spring waters high,
white stones appear, then sink away,

and rustling wisteria branches sway,
a half moon drifting azure heaven.

Who knows how many fiddleheads wait,
clenched along paths I once walked?

In three years, back from Yeh-lang,
I’ll resolve my bones into gold there.

Friday March 1 – Thursday March 7


Featured Film:

Mutual Appreciation at the Grand Illusion

It doesn’t seem possible that Mutual Appreciation, one of the corwning achievments of the Mumblecore movement (some might say one fo the only good products of the Mumblecore movement) should be old enough to be in need of restoration. But here we are in 2019 and Andrew Bujalski’s now 13 year old film has indeed been restored and is playing four days this week at the Grand Illusion. His prior film, Funny Ha Ha, will be playing there next week. Bujalski has in recent years moved onto somewhat higher profile work: with the oddball minor sensation Computer Chess, the oddball rom-com Results, and the oddball workplace comedy Support the Girls, he’s responsible for some of the finest American films of recent years. Here’s a chance to catch up with where he started. And yes, it kind of killed me not to put Legend of the Demon Cat in this spot. A film far too good to be paired with SIFF’s novelty showing of a  Cat Video Festival.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar) Fri-Thurs 
Luka Chuppi (Laxman Utekar) Fri-Thurs 

Central Cinema:

Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974) Fri, Sat, Mon-Weds  
Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005) Fri-Mon 
The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002) Weds Only 


Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) Fri & Sat Only 
Blackkklansman (Spike Lee) Sun & Mon Only 
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Tues & Weds Only 

Crest Cinema Centre:

Roma (Alfonso Cuarón) Fri-Thurs 

SIFF Egyptian:

Legend of the Demon Cat (Chen Kaige) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Cat Video Fest 2019 Sat & Sun Only 

Century Federal Way:

Extreme Job (Lee Byung-heon) Fri-Thurs 
Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) Sun & Weds Only 

Grand Cinema:

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi) Fri-Thurs 
Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) Fri-Thurs 
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) Fri-Thurs 
Police Story 2 (Jackie Chan, 1988) Sat Only 
Burning (Lee Chnagdong) Tues Only 
Women’s Adventure Film Tour Thurs Only 

Grand Illusion Cinema:

FP2: Beats of Rage (Jason Trost) Fri & Sat Only 
Jupiter’s Moon (Kornél Mundruczó) Fri, Sun, Tues & Thurs 
Saturday Secret Matinee Sat Only 16mm
Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski) Sat, Sun, Mon & Weds 
Lords of Chaos (Jonas Åkerlund) Mon-Thurs 

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi) Fri-Thurs 
Total Dhamaal (Indra Kumar) Fri-Thurs 
Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar) Fri-Thurs 
Luka Chuppi (Laxman Utekar) Fri-Thurs 
LKG (Prabhu) Fri-Thurs 
Sonchiriya (Abhishek Chaubey) Fri-Thurs 
Kodathi Samaksham Balan Vakeel (B. Unnikrishnan) Sat-Mon Only 
Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) Sun & Weds Only 

Regal Meridian:

Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar) Fri-Thurs 
The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo) Fri-Thurs Our Review 

Northwest Film Forum:

The Gospel of Eureka (Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher) Fri-Weds Director Q&A Sat
Madaraka: The Documentary (Wael “L” Abou-Zaki) Sat Only 
Chronic Means Forever and Always (Kadazia Allen-Perry and Angela DiMarco) Sun Only Directors in Attendance
Salvador Dalí: In Search of Immortality (David Pujol) Mon-Thurs 
Festival of (In)Appropriation #10 Thurs Only 

AMC Pacific Place:

The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo) Fri-Thurs Our Review 
Sharkwater Extinction (Rob Stewart) Fri-Thurs 

Paramount Theatre:

Asphalt (Joe May, 1929) Mon Only 

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Luka Chuppi (Laxman Utekar) Fri-Thurs 
Total Dhamaal (Indra Kumar) Fri-Thurs 
Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar) Fri-Thurs 
Alone Together (Antoinette Jadaone) Fri-Thurs 

AMC Seattle:

Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) Fri-Thurs 
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Film Center:

To Dust (Shawn Snyder) Fri-Sun 
Mankiller (Valerie Red-Horse) Thurs Only 

SIFF Uptown:

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi) Fri-Thurs 
Capernaum (Nadine Labaki) Fri-Thurs 
2019 Oscar Animated Shorts (Various) Fri-Thurs 
Nordic Lights Film Festival Fri-Sun 
To Dust (Shawn Snyder) Mon-Thurs 

Varsity Theatre:

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) Sun Only