Legend of the Mountain

In 1979 the popular culture of east and west could not have seemed further apart, the top grossing films at the American box office the dissection of the crumbling nuclear family in Kramer vs Kramer and The Amityville Horror, the affirmation and annihilation of the male ego in Rocky II and Apocalypse Now, and the big-budget science fiction spectacle of visionary directors Robert Wise and Ridley Scott with Star Trek The Motion Picture and Alien.

A world away, Chinese director King Hu once again drew on the traditions of his ancient land even as he took advantage of financial subsidies to film in Korea, releasing two features in quick succession, filmed back-to-back with much of the same cast, crew and locations, his sixth and seventh films Raining in the Mountain (空山靈雨) and Legend of the Mountain (山中傳奇).

Scripted by his wife, the academic, writer and translator Chung Ling and inspired by the traditional Chinese folk tale of “a cave full of ghosts in the west mountains,” Legend of the Mountain fitted into Hu’s background of martial arts movies with an edge of the fantastical, the genre known as wuxia, which included his earlier hits Come Drink With Me, Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen for which he belatedly won a prize at Cannes when it was reinstated to its original cut in 1975.

Upon its release in 1979 Legend of the Mountain was similarly brutally cut down to 112 minutes, and it was not until decades later that a complete print of Hu’s full 191 minute version was discovered in the archives when it was requested for a festival screening; now restored in 4K it is this version which has been released on a Blu-ray/DVD double disc on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label.

It is the eleventh century, the time of the Song Dynasty, and failed scholar Ho Yunqing (Chun Shih) is working as a lowly copyist; approached to obtain a Buddhist sutra from the Ocean Mudra Temple, he will convey it to a place of isolation where he can work in peace to transcribe the translation which it is believed can “navigate the realms of life and death and grant release to lost souls.”

Expecting to be housed with General Han and his troops at the North Fort, it is almost deserted in no man’s land, Ho welcomed instead by the late General’s adviser Tsui Hung-chih (Lin Tung), the pushy Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu) who practically demands that Ho will tutor her daughter Melody (Feng Hsu), their maid Qing and the aggressive mute Zhang (Feng Tien).

Quickly distracted from his task, Ho is entranced by Melody, drawn by her dubious musical talents and his reserve overcome by alcohol, and the pair are swiftly married, but the behaviour of both Melody and her mother is odd, nor does Ho’s jealous wife like Ho’s developing friendship with the mysterious Cloud (Sylvia Chang), a woman he feels that he has met before.

The setting, costumes and family arrangements all deeply traditional, The Legend of the Mountain is enchanting in its depiction of ritual and culture, elegant and immaculately formal but with broad performances which border on comedy, particularly Hsu’s overbearing mother-in-law and her relationship with Shih’s put-upon people-pleaser Ho, but it is the glorious presentation which captures the eye and the mind.

With flickering sunshine over rivers and mist over lakes and waterfalls, in colour-soaked sunrises and sunsets, through forests and over rocks and by candlelight and through smoking incense, The Legend of the Mountain is carried by the luminous cinematography of Henry Chan which distracts from the erratic narrative, the plot meandering for almost half the running time with heavy exposition cluttering the final act.

Accompanied by two informative special features, David Cairn’s video essay on King Hu considers the former artist and actor who turned to directing and the perfection he demanded in his work, amply demonstrated in this film, and examines his techniques and the themes repeated in his films, while Tony Rayns, a friend of Hu, covers his career from a production point of view.

The original release of Legend of the Mountain having been victim of a cutting which was more concerned with a manageable running time than narrative coherence and overseas sales hampered by what Rayns terms “catastrophic subtitles,” rendered by a language student in modern colloquial American English, Eureka’s reinstated presentation features an entirely new and altogether more faithful translation.

Despite featuring bouncing ghosts, flying demons and the powerful sorcery of coloured smoke, percussion instruments and big hats, not to mention a magic gourd, The Legend of the Mountain is interesting in that it is the women who are the more powerful in supernatural terms but remain subservient in the domestic, but despite its odd charm and the pleasing cast it lacks the focus to appeal to the casual viewer.

Legend of the Mountain is available now on dual format from Eureka Video



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