Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu
Starring: Chun Shih, Feng Hsu, Sylvia Chang, Hui Lou Chen, Rainbow Hsu, Lin Tung, Feng Tien
Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong
Running Time: 192 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The Chinese director King Hu is best known for his groundbreaking wuxia films. Starting out doing all manner of jobs for Shaw Brothers in the late 50s and early 60s, he finally took a seat in the director’s chair in the middle of the 60s. His first big hit was Come Drink with Me, a martial arts classic, and he followed it up with the even more popular Dragon Inn. He followed these up with something truly special, the three hour epic A Touch of Zen, but audiences weren’t quite so keen when it was finally released following a lengthy production process. Perhaps the film didn’t work split into two as it was back then, or people weren’t ready for this unusual and highly spiritual spin on the wuxia genre, but the dramatic rise to the top of his career suddenly came to a halt. He struggled to get the projects he wanted off the ground after that as financiers were wary about backing him, but he came across an offer by the Korean government who were giving tax breaks to anyone choosing to shoot films in the country with some Korean crew and cast. This allowed Hu to make Raining in the Mountain, a project he’d had his eye on for a while. However, another requirement of the tax break was that you had to make two films in the country, so Hu used a lot of the same locations, cast and crew from Raining on the Mountain to shoot Legend of the Mountain straight off the back of it. Not an auspicious start to a film you might think, but judging by the length of it (over three hours) and care put into the look of the film, it clearly wasn’t a mere throwaway exercise to get some money back.
Like the similarly lengthy A Touch of Zen, Legend of the Mountain was chopped up for its original release. This time not in half, but butchered down to a more audience-friendly two hours. This made it rather incoherent though and the film flopped, leading to the further decline of Hu’s career. A long time after this though, the remaining hour or so of Legend of the Mountain was found and restored, allowing critics and cineasts a chance to re-evaluate the film and it’s now held in higher regard, if not quite to the level of A Touch of Zen or Dragon Inn. I’m a fan of both of those films, so when Eureka announced they were adding Legend of the Mountain to their Masters of Cinema collection, I was very interested in seeing it. Now I finally have, I’ll let you know whether I think it deserves a place among his masterworks.
Legend of the Mountain isn’t a wuxia like Hu’s better known work, although it does feature a little acrobatic action in the latter half. Instead it’s a fantasy horror, a distinctly Chinese ghost story. It sees the scholar Ho Qingyun (Hu regular Chun Shih) head to a remote fort in the mountains to copy a sutra believed to have the power to release lost souls. The few residents up there have their own sights set on the sutra, but need it to be copied first, so do their best to make Ho feel especially welcome. The most extreme example of this sees the particularly cunning Melody (Feng Hsu - another favourite of Hu’s) get Ho drunk and hypnotise him with her bewitching drumming, convincing him the next morning that he’d promise to marry her. Not wanting to dishonour the young woman, Ho goes ahead with the marriage, unaware that his new wife’s real interests lie in his work on the sutra and that she is imbued with supernatural powers! Many of the other residents of the fort seem to be on her side, but a wandering Taoist Lama (Hui Lou Chen) is determined to stop the sutra getting into the wrong hands and when Ho finally learns the truth, he also gets support from the beautiful but strong Cloud (Sylvia Chang).
Legend of the Mountain is another fine example of Hu’s meticulous work in creating lushly gorgeous imagery. His location work in particular is fantastic, making the most of the elements around him. Light, water and smoke are used to great effect, making for an often breathtakingly beautiful film. Hu could have toned down the cutaways of nature perhaps, particularly in an hilariously dated sex scene, but these do prove successful in some other sequences.
Hu and his co-editor Nan Hsiao do a wonderful job of editing the film too. OK, so it’s probably overlong and could have survived a bit of a trim (if not the butchering it originally received), but some of the set pieces are brilliantly cut together. In particular there are a few tense and exciting ‘drum-offs’, for want of a better description. Melody and the Lama have a few magic battles involving intense drumming and these have a wonderful energy, rhythm and tension that makes a potentially ridiculous concept work a treat.
The film is refreshingly different to Western ghost stories too, although more common to those familiar with Eastern afterlife mythology. Even if you’ve seen your share of Chinese ghost stories though, the story is enjoyably wacky. It gets a little confusing as the film accelerates into its fast paced final third, which is dense with flashbacks, but never so much as to cause your interest to wane. This latter section contains more action and fun practical special effects too, which helps. In general, the film proves an enjoyable watch, despite its length. I managed it in one sitting, which can be tough for any film that pushes the three hour mark.
All in all, it’s a stunning epic that’s unlike any western horror movie. It’s a little long maybe, but the craftsmanship is a pleasure to behold and the second half in particular gets quite thrilling. The efforts made to restore this to its complete glory must be applauded, as otherwise it could have been lost forever.
Legend of the Mountain is out on 19th March on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture looks great - clean and detailed, if a fraction faded at times. The music struggled a bit coming out of my speaker setup, but I imagine that was more down to the recording technology of the period.
Extra features include:
- Limited Edition O-Card (2000 units) – first print run only
- 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD
- Uncompressed LPCM mono audio - Newly translated English subtitles
- A new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
- A new interview with Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns
- A collector’s booklet featuring an abundance of archival writing and imagery
It’s not a lot of extra material, but pieces by Cairns and Rayns are always welcome additions to any release. As usual they offer well researched and genuinely interesting insight into the film and director.