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Toronto: Correspondences #3 — Chinese Blockbusters

From TIFF, our critics’ correspondence continues with a look at Chen Kaige’s “The Legend of the Demon Cat” and Jiang Wen’s “Hidden Man”.
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
Legend of the Demon Cat
The Legend of the Demon Cat
Dear Kelley,
I must admit I don’t find this year’s festival any more tiring—yet!—than the beginning of the last. As you point out, film culture in general and festivals in particular are being exhaustively picked at and vividly debated over to in order try to fight the tragic inertia of wide-spread and often institutional biases and discrimination. This deep questioning is being seen everywhere from hiring practices all the way to, as you indicate, programming choices and the diversity of critical voices. On the one hand, I find this context an inspiring one for improvement and change for an industry that is all kinds of conservative; but on the other, I do indeed find myself preliminarily wearied these days by the gamut of cultural criticism that is very quick indeed to talk about numbers in a broad sense and less willing to discuss the meaning or importance of films specifically.
To say I began the festival with a movie that felt far away from these mostly-Western, mostly-American critiques was to put it mildly. It turns out my entry into TIFF was an escape: into the cavalcade of lush decor, extravagant coloring, and a delightfully exorbitant amount of computer generated cats all found in The Legend of the Demon Cat. Presented without further detail as the director’s cut of Chen Kaige’s excessive 2017 Chinese-Japanese co-production based on Baku Yumemakura’s book, the film hardly seems more arty or political or sordid than another imaginable version, and coherency certainly is not something this cut hones, but it certainly is a gloriously visualized package of cinematic invention. The story is of a Tang-dynasty poet (Xuan Huang) teaming up with a visiting Japanese shaman (Shôta Sometani, an actor whose sociopathic blank face has been used well by Sono Sion, Takashi Miike, and last seen in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Foreboding) to solve the mystery of the convulsive, terrified death of the emperor, which they quickly tie to the curse of a very vocal and vengeful black cat. Why and how this cat came to be haunting the 9th century capital of Cheng’an involves a nested story discovered through the poet’s infatuation for an earlier courtly love poem devoted to a previous emperor and his beloved concubine, whose beauty and vision were said to hold the nation in thrall. The woman’s mysterious death in the past seems to be transmuted into the present court through a feline vendetta.
This pulpy silliness is told with a rare kind of cinematic excess, the money thrown into every inch of screen space as luxuriant as an MGM picture of old, and the scale of set, of number of extras, of years in production, and of expense has been bragged about in terms equal to anything Cecil B. DeMille boasted. Unlike too many large Chinese productions that are lit with sleekly blasé, sitcom-esque brightness, Chen’s mise en scène is decadently textured by integrating layers of light, costume, and production design, achieving an opulence whose purity is sullied only by films’s understanding of ‘story’ as incessant lore-dump. The explanations, flashbacks, visions, poetry recitations and so on create a malleable world where the actual threat of the demon’s curse quickly fades in favor of a Russian-doll approach of stories opening upon stories. This is coupled with a large emphasis on magic and illusion, a quality the film shares with Tsui Hark’s not dissimilar Detective Dee film from this year, which staged a battle between rationality and hoaxes. “Inside the illusion is reality,” warns a street magician in The Legend of the Demon Cat, though whether the reality he refers to is in reference to the true origins of the evil cat or the reality that exists beyond the computer-generated illusion of Demon Cat itself is hard to say. Indeed, rarely has there been a Chinese film that has so successfully melded computer imagery with practical set design, and Chen wisely keeps his characters in motion, rushing around a very tactile, spatially complex world that is amplified by illusion, building image on image as the story unfurls.
To a degree, the overarching story is a literary mystery about artists—in this case, poets—writing odes to love and country, whether they are true to fact or to sentiment, and how illusion covers truth or reaches for a greater one. It’s all quite disjointed, and eventually even the image extravagance gets overwrought and tedious rather than euphoric, but it’s hard to fault a film which no doubt has the largest feline special effects budget in cinema history. We see a cat cry, lovelorn, and wipe the tears with its paw! The sincerity isn’t earned but the effort (and effect) is certainly commendable.
Yet the kind of contrasts a festival can bring are instructive, because but a day after I saw this super production, I also saw Kevin Jerome Everson's micro-cosmic short film shown in a Wavelengths program, Polly One. Made of but two shots on 16mm of last year's solar eclipse as seen through some kind of polarizing filter, Everson has captured an astounding and rarified set of colors, purple-hued, smoked and bedazzled, in this short-lived and exquisite film. Dedicated as it is to the passing of a family member, its brief run-time corrals an astral plane for but a moment, revealing a vision of otherworldly and inexplainable beauty. Yet it was probably made for the budget of one CGI whisker in Demon Cat.
Coincidentally, one of my next films was another big budget Chinese picture, actor-director Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man, the third of his comic action films set in the 1930s, after the spectacularly good (and spectacularity lucrative) Let the Bullets Fly (2010) and the wonderfully ambitious if wildly uneven Gone with the Bullets (2014). The new picture, set in 1937 “Peiping”—the era’s name for Beijing—on the cusp of Japan declaring war on a hobbled and splintered China, is on the surface a simple tale of revenge. The dashing American-educated doctor Li Tianran (Eddie Pang) returns to his country to kill the two men who, when he was a child, shot to death and set on fire his adoptive father and martial arts master, his step-sister and, the killers thought, Tianran too. Sent abroad for his safety, Tianran has been training himself not just as a gynecologist (a fact in keeping with the film’s odd-ball, irreverent humor) but for vengeance as well, having been enlisted by a vague Sino-American contingent—the Chinese part being played by Jiang Wen himself—to return home and help prevent the Japanese from taking over. In Peiping, one of the killers is now the corrupt and execution-happy Chief of Police (Fan Liao), and the other is a Japanese (Kenya Sawada) teaching Confucianism to locals and smuggling in opium on the side. In other words, our filial and handsome young man must rid the forthcoming Chinese nation of malignant Japanese invaders and homegrown collaborationists, while he also finds himself ping-ponging between the wiles of a collaborationist hussy (Summer Xu) and a beautiful seamstress of mysterious poise (Zhou Yun).
The scenario seems straight-forward, but with Jiang Wen a movie is anything but: the three blockbuster-style films he has made have approached the cinema with a rare kind of intellectual cartoonism, rife with ridiculous bluster, energy and ideas, telling narratives that divert and double-back and complicate his stories on a dime, throwing them into convolutions where clear-cut relationships get charged with uneasy underground tensions. He has set these films in the 1930s when anything seemed to go in China and in which the director, too, is perhaps more free to mask his criticism. This era is a stage for a relentless jockeying for money, power and the future of the nation, and Jiang loves to amp up the theatrical artificiality of that stage, whether the setting is a play on a wild west town (Let the Bullets Fly), the glamour of Shanghai movie-making (Gone with the Bullets), or a frothy mix of martial arts loyalties and espionage (Hidden Man). Less bloated than its two predecessors, this new film is also a bit less colorful and doesn’t reach for the delirium of imagination or comedy that the other two hit more regularly. But Jiang still has a remarkable touch, ribald, playful and reflexive, shifting from one scene of the lyricism of the capital laden with snow, to the lovingly comic gymnastics of Tianran leaping across the Beijing rooftops to rendezvous with one of his ladies, and from hilarious rapid-fire repartee to brutal violence directed with abrupt, gag-like spontaneity. Despite dextrous complications and reverses, Hidden Man never feels as rich and flagrantly ambiguous as the director’s previous two films. Yet, even if the sweet-yet-vengeful Tianran is the story’s star, Jiang Wen’s character ends up pulling all the strings, a puppet master of spycraft and manipulation, trying to wrangle all nations and motivations for his own purposes. Who’s to say that what’s hidden behind Hidden Man isn’t some other meaning, shrouded in the film’s delightful bluster?
And what secret meanings did you discover in the cinema over the last few days, Kelley?
Warmly,
Danny

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