‘Legend Of The Demon Cat’ (妖猫传) is what can be called ‘fantastical history’ or ‘historical fantasy’ – a highly dramatised and romanticised retelling of how events might had been, that led to the demise of Yang Guifei (杨贵妃), who was considered one of the four great beauties of ancient China. Beyond a royal love story, it speaks of the timeless ‘curse’ of attachment. As a desperate political move deemed needed to appease the masses, Emperor Xuanzong (唐玄宗) ordered her to be killed, leading to much heartbreak.
Prior to that, he had become so infatuated with indulgence in her company, that he neglected his official duties. In this sense, her tragic doom was partly his fault. As Bai Juyi (白居易) wrote in the opening line of his ‘Song Of Everlasting Regret’ (长恨歌), he paralleled him to a Han emperor, who valued sex such, that he (was distracted, and) contemplated bringing down the downfall of the nation (汉皇重色思倾国). Is this indeed romantic? Or just truly selfish and reckless?
In this ‘legend’, a youth became so attached to guarding Yang’s ‘beautiful’ corpse, with futile hope of reviving her, that he suppresses knowledge that she is already deceased. So attached was he, that in a bid to prevent her body from decaying, he sacrificed his own body, and transferred his consciousness to a cat. With his memories mixed with this cat, who heard the last screams and struggles of Yang in her stony grave, he became enraged, eager to wreck vengeance against those he deemed guilty for her death. He thus became the demon cat, to be ‘exorcised’ by a fictitious version of Great Master Kukai (空海大师).
Ironically, though with shapeshifting skills, the youth-cat who was ‘free’ with his form was not free in his mind, as he clung on to her form. His attachment to her pain was senseless as it was already over, with revenge unable to undo it. His aversion only made him even more deludedly attached, to further suffer. Master Kukai ‘enlightens’ him, by reminding him, that just as he had, for a long time, not been his human body, Yang’s failing body was also telling him, that she had not been her body for a long time already. What clung to was but wonderful memories of her, which should just be cherished while they last.
The recurring theme of magical illusion reminds of impermanence of all things worldly, even the body and mind, with which there is beauty and love. Even the most determined who cling on have to eventually let go, when death parts the attacher from the attached, before forgetting each other in the next samsaric life. If so, why not seek the lasting happiness of liberation from attachment, aversion and delusion via Pure Land? There can be total recall and reunion there, for the truest reunion, by becoming equally enlightened.
Others perhaps also attached to the romance envisioned are the author of the novels the film is based on, its director, and entranced audiences? Bai was portrayed to be infatuated too, with the last lines of his poem lamenting, ‘The heavens and the earth are long-lasting, yet with end of times, but these regrets are continuous, without the day of exhaustion.’ (天长地久有时尽，此恨绵绵无绝期。) Yet, already reborn, these regrets are surely gone with the sands of time… unless similar ones are clung to… yet again!