Legend of the Demon Cat (Chen Kaige, 2017)

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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.

The Great Battle (Kim Kwangsik, 2018)

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One of the more peculiar and underexamined genres of the 21st century is an outgrowth of the two films at the heart of the Oscar race in 2000, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The former revived the sword and sandals craze of the 1950s: epic war movies set in the distant past, with handsome men and headstrong women wielding spears and arrows as they face oncoming hoards of villains; while the later breathed new life into the wuxia film, updating King Hu and Chang Cheh classics to a contemporary art house setting. As Gladiator spawned Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven and a handful of Arthurian, Viking and assorted other medieval adventures, Crouching Tiger led to Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of ornate epics Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, along with countless lesser adventures produced across Asia (Mongol with Tadonobu Asano, Musa with Zhang Ziyi, God of War with Sammo Hung and The Great Wall with Matt Damon, and Korea’s own The Admiral: Roaring Currents with Choi Minsik). The decisive factor the revival of these spectacles was the easy availability of computer generated imagery, drastically reducing the time and cost of producing a “cast of thousands”, while also amplifying the action sequences with slow motion (“bullet time”), erasure of wires, cartoonish gore, and the stitching together of disparate takes to create an illusion of seamless, continuous action. What the technology has thus far been unable to do, unfortunately, is raise the quality of the films’ scripts.

Into this heady tradition steps Kim Kwangsik’s The Great Battle, the story of the siege of Ansi fortress in northern Korea (at the time, AD 645, the kingdom of Goguryeo) by the massive army of Taizong, the Tang Dynasty ruler generally considered among the greatest of all Chinese Emperors. Outnumbered 40 to 1 (that is, 200,000 to 5,000), the Koreans are led by Yang Manchun, a mysterious historical figure embodied on-screen as a brilliant, brave, passionate, wise, honest, charming, generous, and handsome leader by Jo Insung. At his side are a pair of bickering captains (a tall, elegant leader of swordsmen and a hairy, gruff leader of axemen, the Legolas and Gimli of the story), a pair of young lovers (the leader of the cavalry and Yang’s sister, who leads a fearless band of crossbowwomen) and a callow youth, who has been sent to assassinate Yang by the leader of the Goguryeo army (who had killed the king and precipitated the war with the Tang), but who is instead so impressed by Yang’s moral and martial courage that he becomes his flag-bearer instead.

The cookie-cutter characterization and rote emoting of the generic plot can be tough to take, but fortunately the film’s real interest lies in its action scenes, which are of uniformly high quality. A siege movie, we are treated to a variety of infernal machines developed for the sole purpose of killing men on top of walls. Many of them we’ve seen before, but the film builds neatly from trebuchets, ladders and battering rams to massive towers and ultimately a gigantic earthen mound that takes months to build. Only the scrappy heroism and purity of Yang and his men (and women) are able to overcome the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority of the Tang. The combat itself is well-done, with a steady camera tracking though the bloody chaos, limbs and CGI reds flying as soldiers more or less follow the laws of physics. It’s all easy to read and delivers the essential violence that is the genre’s reason for being.

But that’s all it does. The better films in the genre have higher ambitions: Alexander‘s vision of a world-conquering madness; Hero‘s meditation on power and national unity;  Baahubali‘s genre-blending, intricate story-telling and wildly imaginative special effects; even The Great Wall‘s melding of medieval warfare with 50s style science-fiction; or Red Cliff, to date the finest example of the genre, deftly blending unique characters and relationships on a grand scale of schemes, tactics and action. The Great Battle plays it safe, content with the cliché, lacking even enough ideology to be a propaganda film.