LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN (1979)
A scholar, tasked to copy a sutra, meets with a mysterious old lady and her daughter in the mountains...
If you’re in the mood for a three-and-a-quarter-hour long Chinese-Korean epic ghost story about Zen Philosophy, with a hint of Kung Fu, lots of landscape shots, hypnotic drum rolls, clashing symbols, and lingering flute melodies… look no further than Legend of the Mountain. And did I mention ghosts?
As a cinematic experiment, this is a film to be applauded. Director King Hu relies heavily on the tenacity of his audience to engage with a story that takes vast liberties with concepts of Time and Space. Certainly, at the time it was released, he was taking a big risk as he’d made several very successful movies in the popular wuxia genre—historic adventures featuring legendary swordsmen. Among these are Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Inn (1967), which innovated fight sequences so characters were shown to have supernatural skills enabling them to leap, tumble, and seemingly fly (with the aid of wires and trampolines).
Hu had experimented with the long-form film in A Touch of Zen (1966) and it didn’t immediately pay off. It was so long the distributors released it as two films. They weren’t as popular as his other wuxia movies, and were then re-cut into a single, more confusing film of less than two-hours. It was later shown in its entirety at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Technical Grand Prize and was nominated for the Palme d’Or, making it the first Chinese-language film to win any award at Cannes and the first wuxia film to win at any international film festival. A Touch of Zen is now recognised as a major influence on Chinese action films and is seen as the forebear to the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002), and The Assassin (2015).
Legend of the Mountain starts well with lowly scholar Mr Ho (Chun Shih) arriving at a temple, taking a commission to transcribe a mysterious set of scrolls, or ‘sutra’. After receiving strict instructions not to speak anything aloud, he and the master of the temple communicate solely through sign language. Presumably, this is so the spirits cannot overhear their plans, for the sutra is so powerful that whoever copies it out is endowed with the powers to see and subdue demons. The narration explains that he isn’t a spiritual man and is sceptical of Buddhist scripture—to him it’s just another job. Ho’s instructed to seek out solitude and focus on his task in a meditative manner, so leaves the monastery and sets off on foot.
The next 20-minutes are the high point of the film and consist of a figure walking through landscape. There’s some rousing music, but also the sounds of nature are brought to the fore; wind in the trees, the roar of waterfalls, the gentle rippling of rivers. The scenery’s spectacular and reminiscent of Zen paintings of winding mountain passes and craggy peaks rising from valley mists. There’s no dialogue and we glimpse very few other figures on the paths, but Ho repeatedly sees a vision of a beautiful woman in white playing a haunting tune on her flute. Each time he sets eyes on her, she vanishes, but her music lingers on after she’s gone—a metaphor that informs the whole film.
It’s been noted that the first part of the film parallels Jonathan Harker’s journey up the Borgo Pass in Dracula, but instead of a vampire’s ancient castle he eventually comes across an abandoned fort and is attacked by a ragged ‘wildman’—the film’s equivalent to Renfield. This scarily fanged, though ineffectual, assailant turns out to be Old Chang (Feng Tie), servant to the only other remaining occupant, Adviser Tsui (Lin Tung), who then greets him hospitably and recommends quarters where he may transcribe in isolation. He even assigns him some servants to take care of cooking and cleaning, so he can concentrate on his task: Madam Wang (Rainbow Hsu) and her lovely ‘daughter’ Melody (Feng Hsu), make him welcome and ply him with ‘wine’ until he wakes up with Melody, apparently having spent the night in the same bed. Matters of honour force him into an agreement of marriage.
In contrast to the leisurely walk through the landscape, which absorbs the viewer into its beauty, the domestic interactions of these characters get a little tedious… annoying even. There’s an extended montage showing the couple settle into marriage, intercut with many sunsets, sunrises, and plenty of stunning compositions that echo classic Chinese screen paintings. The animals and insects changing with the seasons. But we resent the intrusion of everyday bickering, and may also notice that seasons have passed, and we haven’t seen our scholar, Ho, take up the pen…
Hu explained in interviews that, although he was known for action films, he wanted to experiment with duration. He was interested in some of the film being a mediation, almost real-time, whilst other sequences rushed us through the seasons. It was a brave risk for a successful director to take, and I’m not sure it worked. I have to admit it took me more than one attempt to get through this film without nodding off! But the film is about the links between human time and the eternal cycles of nature, and also deals very much with dreams and the way they stretch and compress time. So, perhaps it’s appropriate to drift off into your own dream world as you’re watching…
As a film that questions cinematic pace, durations and the human relationship with natural cycles, I found it hard not to compare it with the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, also famed for his long-form films that play with perceptions of time passing. Sadly, there’s no comparison, really. It would have difficulty standing alongside Stalker (1979), for example, which was made the same year and also dealt with desires and the relationships between the corporeal and spiritual realms. Not to mention the earlier films of Tarkovsky, such as Solaris (1971) and Mirror (1975), which more effectively evoke the majestic harmony of nature and its relationship to human values.
Legend of the Mountain is best approached as a Buddhist parable, but because much of it is inharmonious and avoids offering any clear lessons, it does tend to drag and remains ultimately unsatisfying. I didn’t feel rewarded for my endurance of its duration, alas! Having said that, I’m also glad I stuck with it, as it does have plenty to offer in terms of visual inventiveness, and whenever it decides to go for the supernatural elements I found it easier to engage with. The film cleverly straddles genres but doesn’t sit harmoniously in any of them. Maybe that’s the point. I realise the imbalance is part of the overall concept, but I think I would have enjoyed a film that either went wholeheartedly for evoking nature’s sublime majesty, or unashamedly embraced the supernatural horror elements.
The domestic montages are a clear reference to the ‘Lotus Eaters’ passage in book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus is seduced into complacency and almost fails to continue his quest. Here, our scholar is diverted from his mission to transcribe the magical texts by the minutiae of everyday life and material needs. It becomes clear that Madam Wang and Melody are not quite what they seem and he also meets the mysterious flute-playing woman again. She is Cloud (Sylvia Chang), whom he’s genuinely attracted to. The Taoist priest Yang (Hui Lou Chen) also steps in and as we enter the third act, things get a whole lot weirder.
We soon learn that the young scholar’s been ensnared by evil spirits desperate to stop him from translating the sutra and thus threatening their powers. Yang steps in and battles Melody with a dramatic ‘drum-off’—yes, the magic’s represented in the form of music and this links with the central theme of rhythms in nature and life. Music is also something we may have experienced that we cannot see, or touch, but can have a profound emotional effect.
There’s a dream-like sequence where Cloud and Melody engage in acrobatic battle among the tall pines in gravity-defying tumbles and leaps that cover hundreds of yards. Almost certainly inspiration for the similar bamboo battle scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The final hour is definitely veering into the Chinese ghost story genre. There are more drum and symbol contests, black magic rituals, plenty of coloured smokes, even a glimpse of a black goat standing upright. It reminded me of many episodes of the 1980s TV series Monkey, which, although often played for laughs, dealt with similar themes and may have been inspired by the same folkloric sources.
Writer Chung Ling, based her screenplay on an ancient Song Dynasty folktale called A Cave Full of Ghosts in the West Mountains. She was an academic, translator, and a professor of literature, which she taught at several universities in China and the US. She and King Hu had married in 1977, so the prominent theme of matrimony was foremost in their minds. Buddhist teachings warn against the dangers of honour, obedience and duty, because those concepts can bind people to inharmonious choices and can be easily manipulated by the unscrupulous. Having enjoyed more than a decade of, presumably harmonious matrimony, the couple divorced in 1991.
King Hu found the funding for Legend of the Mountain through a subsidy scheme being offered in South Korea. The scheme stipulated that a production company had to make at least two films in Korea, using a certain percentage of Korean cast and crew. So, Hu made another film in parallel using the same cast, crew and locations, the ‘sister’ film being Raining in the Mountain (1979).
When Legend of the Mountain was first released it suffered a similar fate as A Touch of Zen and was ‘inharmoniously’ cut down to 112-minutes. Incredibly, much of the final act, including the dreamy pine forest battle, was jettisoned. As a result, the intentionally baffling plot made even less sense and the movie consequently performed so poorly at theatres that it was never given a general release outside China.
This 4K version, from Eureka Video as part of their Masters of Cinema imprint, was fully restored in 2016 by the snappily named Taiwan Film Classic Digital Restoration and Value-Adding Project. The print had been bequeathed by Hu to a film archive and pretty much forgotten about until a researcher stumbled upon it. This is the first time the full ‘director’s cut’ has seen release, so it’s a historic event in Asian cinema.
As usual, Eureka have taken great care with the transfer and you’ll probably never see Legend of The Mountain looking more sumptuous. All the cinematography is beautiful, though the limitations of the 1970s stock and sound equipment can be felt here and there in its stark rawness. But that’s a very minor gripe as the contrast and saturation have been carefully monitored and adjusted throughout to bring out all the details, often finding form in what could have been swallowed into featureless shadow.
Instead of a commentary, which would’ve been very spaced out on the full film, we’re offered a specially commissioned featurette called Screen Legend, the Magic of King Hu. This is described as a video essay and David Cairns places the film in context of King Hu’s long and influential career. He shares plenty of information about the production, its cast and crew—the kind of thing you would expect from a good audio commentary.
The second specially made extra is an on-camera talk from the always erudite, Tony Raynes. A film critic for the BFI, among many others, he has a special interest in Asian cinema. If you’re a collector of The Masters of Cinema series from Eureka Video, chances are he’s already a familiar face. Here, he’s even more qualified than usual to speak about this film as he knew King Hu personally and had worked with him professionally. Here he again tells us what we need to know and shares some anecdotes about working with Hu, giving us a little insight into the director’s thoughts and process. The collector’s edition also promises a booklet featuring archival writings and images.
writer & director: King Hu.
starring: Shih Chun, Hsu Feng, Sylvia Chang, Tun Lam, Tien Feng, Chen Hui-lou, Rainbow Hsu, Wu Jiaxiang & Ng Ming Tsui.