“In the olden days, there were a lot of Chinese legends. Some about spirits and monks, while others about ghosts and fairies. These legends were popular with all audiences. One of the legends … is set in the Song dynasty, maybe in the 11th century. A scholar failed the imperial exam. All he knew how to do was study, but he couldn’t find a decent job, so he started working as a copyist. It was a living. One day he got a letter from a monk at the Ocean Mudra Temple asking him to copy a Buddhist sutra. Well, he wasn’t a Buddhist, nor did he believe in the spirit world. But then he thought it over and decided to do it for money. It was just another job.”
The word “masterpiece” is thrown around way too much these days. But I can assign Legend of the Mountain (Shan zhong zhuan qi, 1979) that label and would not feel the slightest bit of guilt in doing so. And for an over three-hour film to enthrall the viewer with its lyrical construction and its deepness of emotions throughout is the sign of a master at work, which surely the director of this film, King Hu, was. If one has ever seen his classics Come Drink with Me (Da zui xia, 1966), Dragon Inn (Long men kezhan, 1966) and A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, 1971), one would think that Legend of the Mountain would be another plot-heavy, action orientated martial arts film. But the essence of Legend of the Mountain is not in its action and plot, but rather in its atmosphere and character development. King Hu was the motivating force behind the surge of martial arts films from Hong Kong after his influential Come Drink with Me, but he ultimately became tired of the films and moved his filmmaking endeavors into more evocative avenues.
One thing of note before going on to the film in question that I must address is the quality of the print used by Kino Lorber on this Blu-Ray release. I can think of no other film released on Blu-ray that looks as magnificently vibrant as the restored print used here. One cannot, of course, overlook the direction of King Hu, or the startling cinematography from Henry Chan, whose masterwork is on display here, but Kino Lorber deserves much credit for the quality of this restoration. Even though the film has long passages of inaction, the scenes are presented in such an eye-catching, dazzling fashion that one is never lulled into boredom, but is captivated by the landscape cinematography throughout the whole production. And with the booklet essay by Grady Hendrix, an onscreen interview with the venerable Tony Rayns, an informative video essay from Travis Crawford, along with a photo gallery and the trailer, makes this release the best of the year so far for this writer.
Ho Yunqing (Chun Shih), a young scholar accepts a job to copy a Buddhist sutra for a Buddhist master. Ho is given prayer beads, the sutra and is taught a mudra by the master to ward off demons. Ho Yunqing is told by the monk escorting him from the temple about the sutra, “It’s a ritual to release lost souls who died on the frontier. It will be a great meritorious act. So, copy the sutra as fast as you can.” The monk gives Ho a letter of introduction to a man named Tsui-Hung-Chih (Lin Tung), who can provide him a quiet place to study. As Ho’s treks along the long, tedious journey, he is mirrored by a monk, who besides traveling the same path as him, seems to be guarding him from above, as if they are both doing the same repetitive trek through eternity. Along the way, Ho passes a fellow traveler who after Ho asks him how to get to North Fort, responds “you better not go there,” as nobody lives there anymore. Chun Shih plays Ho Yunqing, with a wide-eyed naivety and a calm Buddhist-like resolve, was no stranger to playing the scholar in King Hu’s films, appearing as such in, Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen.
When Ho arrives at North Fort, he is welcomed by Tsui after being attacked by the deranged Old Chang (Feng Tien). Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu), a nosey old busybody, insists that Ho tutors her kid, which turns out be the beautiful Melody (Feng Hsu), who has a sinister vibe about her. During the welcome dinner, so much wine is forced upon Ho that he passes out. The next morning, Ho can’t remember anything but finds Melody in his room and she informs him that they had slept together the night before. Ho, being the honorable man, decides to marry her, though all is not quite right with Melody. After meeting the beautiful Cloud (Sylvia Chang), Ho realizes that he loves her and not Melody. But no good can ever come from a ghost loving a human, as much as the viewer wishes that love for the angelic Cloud and Ho. In all reality, Ho has walked into a den of ghosts, without a clue as to who is of the living or dead. Melody has become very powerful in her use of the black arts and is shown through flashbacks to have been the murderess of Cloud among others. Melody is after the sutra that Ho is copying for the further magnifying of her dark powers.
The films conclusion takes it into a darker horror-fantasy realm, leaving behind the slow meticulous pace, and boasts an exciting spiritual showdown. Hu never turns the film truly into horror territory, as it stays more along the lines of a fantasy film. One cannot help but feel both empathy and pity for Ho and the other characters, who are all kept suppressed by the otherworldly power of the malicious and spiteful Melody. King Hu had directed films for the Shaw Brothers before leaving to become independent of the studio after Come Drink with Me, and around the same time frame they were also making horror films centered around ghostly/spiritual horror lines at the time: films like Black Magic (Jiang tou, 1975), Black Magic 2 (Gou hun jing tou, 1976), Oily Maniac (You gui zi, 1976) and Seedings of a Ghost (Zhong gui, 1983). Hu was looking for funding to make another film after a four-year hiatus, and accepted a subsidy from South Korea, which called for two films to be made there. In 1977-1978, Hu directed both Legend of the Mountain and the action-drama Raining n the Mountain (Kong shan ling yu), with both released in 1979. Filming on both films was done in the same general gorgeous locations, and Hu used colored smoke, which marked the comings and goings of the spirits, to mask some of the visual redundancy.
While the length of the film may be off-putting to some people, the journey never becomes boring as the visuals are so intoxicating. The atmosphere is rich with the beauty of nature and an underlying sense of dread. One is always leery of the people around the naïve Ho, as their facial expressions and mannerisms tell a story of an eternal battle. Ho, a man with no religious beliefs, is entrusted with a job to essentially defeat a ghostly evil and to give peace to the restless souls who cannot find solace. His journey is essentially the birth of religious faith within a man and the enlightenment of the enchanting path of both life and death. The expedition for the viewer may be an arduous one at times, but the reward is in the viewing of this bewitching, beguiling, captivating film.