The Cat

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The Cat (1992) is Lam Ngai Kai’s last film. In a way it is a fitting film to end the director’s career. All the hallmarks of Lam Ngai Kai’s inimitable style are present in force, as are the director’s thematic preoccupations with body-horror and national identity. But unlike many of Lam Ngai Kai’s genre bending films The Cat is full of optimism.

Based on Ni Kuang’s novel Old Cat (one of the books in the author’s popular Wisely Series), The Cat follows a trio of aliens from a distant star who have come to Hong Kong to thwart the evil entity known as the Starkiller. The alien trio consists of a girl (Gloria Yip), the old man Errol (Lau Siu-ming) and General (the titular cat) who team up with novelist and detective Wisely (Waise Lee) to battle evil, save the earth, and ultimately return home.

Lam Ngai Kai plays this familiar science fiction premise out as a series of show stopping set pieces that draw on various genres. In the scene where the monstrous Starkiller acquires an arsenal Lam Ngai Kai delivers a shoot out worthy of John Woo or Ringo Lam. In another scene Wisely, about to embark on his investigation into the aliens, greets his girlfriend Pai So (Christine Ng) and all of the narrative momentum gives way to a sequence of titillating images of Ng’s sweat covered body. These two scenes are the furthest from the core genre of The Cat and demonstrate Lam Ngai Kai’s versatility as a filmmaker as well as his belief that the cinema’s greatest asset is its ability to offer escapism.

The bulk of the set pieces in The Cat are rooted in the science fiction genre, drawing inspiration primarily from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). But the most bizarre spectacle that The Cat has to offer is the junkyard brawl between General and Lao Pu (an English Mastiff). Lam Ngai Kai uses close-ups of the animals intercut with shots of puppets, dummies and wide shots of the individual animals in motion to create a wuxia infused pet ballet of bloody carnage. Its a bold sequence that’s as campy as it is visceral. In The Cat all of the onscreen heroics of feats of strength are performed by General. General, though a feline friend, is the main character. Though he never speaks, he is always spoken to and talked about. The humanoid characters, of earth and of the stars, seem to only provide context for General’s actions.

There are constant references in The Cat to the handing over of Hong Kong to China in 1997. For Lam Ngai Kai the monster Starkiller is the physical manifestation of those social and political anxieties. When the Starkiller possesses a cop there are a number of cracks about Chinese police brutality and corruption. More subtly, Wisely and Pai So seem concerned that their sexually liberated lifestyle may be some how curbed by the hand over. Mainland China is, like the Starkiller, an outside force that has come to disrupt Hong Kong’s way of life. General and the other heroic aliens are noble and calculating in how they battle to preserve Hong Kong. They represent the hope for a peaceful un-disruptive social transition from one regime to the next.

The Cat may have as many gross-out effects and epic fight scenes as The Seventh Curse (1986) and Story Of Riki (1991) but it lacks the bitter taste of nihilism. Gloria Yip’s alien is the most uncorrupted and joyous character in any of Lam Ngai Kai’s films and it is her attitudes towards violence and respect for human life that permeate The Cat in its entirety. She is the complete antithesis of the Starkiller and, by films end, has transformed Wisely from a mildly jaded gumshoe into a happy-go-lucky boyfriend and novelist. Yip’s alien represents not just a naive love for humanity but the necessity of that kind of love for wonder and fantasy; the possibility for positive progression.