One of the things I hope for when reviewing the new Blu-ray and DVD releases is finding that what has dropped through the letterbox is a previously unsuspected perfect masterpiece that I hadn’t been aware of before. Legend of the Mountain is a film that falls into exactly that rare, much-appreciated category. It is an extraordinary fantasy-horror epic, made by wuxia supremo King Hu in 1979 -- and it now finds its way to UK shores in a definitive Masters of Cinema dual-format edition released thru Eureka Entertainment, having been fully restored to perfection in 4K back in 2016 by the Taiwan Film Institute.
The Chinese film industry had been mining its rich history of folk tales, legends and ghost stories since way before the release of this picture at the end of the seventies. Notably, King Hu’s first employers -- Shaw Brothers Studios -- from his days as a jobbing actor, had a run of successes in the Horror genre and even teamed up with Britain’s Hammer Studios in 1974 to co-produce The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. But Hu’s film, produced, like most of his better known pictures in Taiwan, and starring many of the key names from his repertory of Taiwanese actors, belongs in a special category all of its own, despite deriving from the same literary source materials and incorporating similar shenguai elements as many of the earliest efforts in a genre that would in later years become better known to western audiences with Ching Siu-Tung’s 1987 hit A Chinese Ghost Story. In many ways, Legend of the Mountain represents a throwback to a more elegant cinematic past, and has more in common in its artful approach with classic Japanese arthouse supernatural cinema from the '50s such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s transcendent Ugetsu Monogatari, than it does with the increasingly sleazy materials that were being produced in China at the time under the Shaw Brothers umbrella -- like Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic (1975) and Black Magic II, or his bizarre follow-up Oily Maniac (1976).
King Hu was a masterful filmmaker, noted for his blending of western film editing techniques with the choreography of traditional Chinese martial arts, the resulting aesthetics replicating the formalities of the Beijing Opera he had loved since childhood. King Hu’s retinue of skills as an editor, production designer, costume designer and visual artist facilitated a combination of influences that resulted in outstanding new school wuxia classics such as his breakout film Come Drink With Me (1966); the record-breaking box office hit Dragon Inn (1967); and its follow-up (in which the director’s style-conscious thinking-man’s-action-movie approach to direction reached its zenith), the critically acclaimed A Touch of Zen (1971): all of which married great artistic visual beauty with dynamic camera work and complex plotting. Although the latter also featured representation of the metaphysical as understood through Buddhist philosophy alongside the swordplay and intrigue, a straight ghost story in the style of China's traditional folk tales such as Legend of the Mountain represented new ground for King Hu’s cinema.
By 1979, though, Chinese horror pictures were, in general, becoming more exploitative. Yet King Hu’s uniquely beguiling, ambiguous yet baroque creation seems to display some affinities with the idiosyncratic ‘70s cinema of Nicolas Roeg and even takes inspiration from visual imagery found in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents over and above the high profile western horror pictures that had started to exert an influence on the direction of Chinese horror. Rather than following the pack, this film represents King Hu continuing to move away from mainstream commercial concerns. Like A Touch of Zen a full eight years before it, its extended run time -- in excess of three hours! -- worked against the film attracting a large audience; and in the west, its runtime was severely truncated. After spending so many years on A Touch of Zen, Hu made some effort with the work that followed to get back to producing the commercial hits of his early career by adapting to the new Kung Fu style pioneered at Shaw Brothers. But he found it increasingly difficult to attract funds for his favoured form of historical swordplay epic. Interestingly, the circumstances surrounding his decision to make Legend of the Mountain at that precise point in time, and the reasons it turned out as it did, had less to do with Hu's pre-existing artistic proclivities and everything to do with the practicalities of his professional and personal life coming together to interact in a very specific way during this stage of his career.
Firstly, Legend of the Mountain was the second of two movies Hu was contractually signed up to make back-to-back on location over the course of a single year, requiring him to utilise largely the same cast and crew and shoot at the same locations in South Korea: a production method very similar to one famously employed by England’s Hammer Films in the mid-sixties for the purposes of cost-cutting. In this case, the approach was driven by Hu’s need to attain funds from the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation: a body set up by the Korean authorities to make it attractive for foreign film production to come and invest in Korea by shooting on location there. A primary condition was that a minimum of two films had to be made in the county in order to qualify for this generous funding subsidy. So, with this in mind, King Hu wrote Raining in the Mountain: a film about life in a Ming Dynasty monastery, which he conceived after visiting a Korean folk village - a kind of living museum that seeks to preserve historical monasteries, buildings and artefacts on site and in their original condition – while on a scouting mission in the mist-shrouded mountains, realising that the location could easily double as a Chinese historical setting since the architectural style showcased by its Buddhist temples was very similar to that which was developed in the 11th century by China’s song dynasty. This film was to be made for Hu’s usual Taiwanese backer. But Hu still needed to come up with a second film, which he would produce himself and own the exclusive distribution rights to. For this reason, Legend of the Mountain had to be made very cheaply by going straight into production on completion of Raining in the Mountain and utilising the same re-dressed locations and sets, as well as retaining largely the same cast and the same crew.
At around the same time, King Hu married a Chinese writer and scholar called Ling Chung, who had written extensively about Chinese literature and had been teaching the subject for several years at the State University of New York in Albany. Chung gave up her academic career in the States to come and work with her new husband -- and was delegated the job of writing the screenplay that would form the basis of the second film Hu planned to make after completing work on Raining in the Mountain. Hu nearly always scripted his films alone, so suddenly having someone else generate his material (even if it was his own spouse) was undoubtedly a new experience for him. Working from elements of legend found in the much-mined 18th century text Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling -- specifically the short story A Cave Full of Ghosts in the West Mountain, which provides the basic framework of the screenplay -- Chung came up with a tale that was very different from anything Hu had written and filmed before, presenting unique challenges for a filmmaker with a style underpinned by his talent for shooting complex action rooted in the real world.
Chung’s story, although an original variation on a traditional tale set in the culturally sophisticated Song dynasty, nevertheless remained true to the poetic spirit of Chinese folk tales and legends of the supernatural, while actually containing barely enough plot to fill a half-hour short. However, Ling Chung imbued her modern interpretation of the story with references to the many religious traditions that had co-mingled in China for centuries, informing its intellectual and spiritual life, its philosophy and everyday superstitions. This presented King Hu with the interesting conundrum of how to present such a context on screen with characters that largely stand for metaphorical ideas, and have motivations rooted in the indefinable abstractions of their historical milieu. For his solution, King Hu took the counterintuitive and daring approach of actually extending the film’s running time rather than reducing it, experimenting with duration to reinforce an ethereal atmosphere and create a concentrated film texture full of poetic allusion that does not need to busy the screen at all times with concrete incident and complex plotting. A dreamlike state is induced by extending moments in which nothing much is happening while collapsing events that would normally take place over a great period of time (such as the courtship before a wedding) into mere seconds. The approach was in no way intended to provide padding to make up for the sparseness of the story source; Hu was attempting instead to give expression to the mixture of Taoist and Buddhist thought which provides an illustrative intellectual backdrop to the kinds of folk beliefs this story and others like it inherently rely on for their appeal.
This intent won’t perhaps be apparent to the unwary viewer who comes into this world without prior knowledge of it -- at least until some way into the film; and neophytes may initially feel bewildered by the apparent indifference to issues of pacing or plot development. Indeed, at first it seems all Hu is really interested in depicting at great length is his protagonist -- a naive clerical copyist played by frequent King Hu collaborator Chun Shih -- wandering a series of arresting otherworldly mountain passes and various landscapes of outstanding natural beauty, usually framed as a tiny fragment amidst the splendour, whilst serene Chinese woodwind musical cues float forth, interlaced on the audio track with the profound eeriness of wailing mountain winds. The film begins in this graceful, relaxed register and returns to evocations of such moods at several junctures to show how key narrative events and the characters associated with them also have profound implications for interpreting the landscape. Implicit in such an approach is the philosophical assumptions of the Taoist religion, where an enchantment with nature and its ineffable, ungovernable forces exists alongside a belief in the harmonious creative energy that lies unseen behind everything, connecting all living things and inanimate objects in a matrix of potentialities for transformation. Couple this with the ideas of reincarnation and karma that come from a pervasive Chinese Buddhist strain of thought, and you end up with a -- to western eyes – strange and idiosyncratic ontology, with everything having resonance with something else: animal spirits can take on a human form, and silent meditation or ritualistic incantation (even the act of playing a musical instrument and the creation of melody) express the modes of a life force that also regulates the development of ecosystems and the weather through an all-enveloping teleological wholeness functioning across multiple plains of existence. Even without any prevailing knowledge of Chinese religious thought, viewers will find they have soaked up this metaphysical context perhaps without even realising it, thanks to an extensive series of powerfully allusive montages, edits and pillow shots King Hu expertly weaves throughout the picture … not to fill out time, but to imbue the interactions of his characters with a textural spiritual resonance that’s embedded in a belief system incorporating an immanent supranatural agency.
The film’s hero, meanwhile, embodies the more practical, rationalistic traditions of Confucianism. Clerical scholar Yunqing Ho (Chun Shih) is a man with his feet planted firmly in the real world. He has been charged with a specific practical task he must travel a great distance to accomplish: to carry a scroll, containing a written sutra that releases the souls of the dead, to the Mudra Temple, high up on a plateau of the Gaya mountain, where he is to copy it for General Han in the wake of a great battle on the frontier that has resulted in the loss of many soldiers who, according to Buddhist belief, cannot pass on to the next stage of their existence without it. Ho does not reject the supernatural. Indeed, he leaves armed with prayer beads given to him by a monk to ward off any demons he might encounter along the way. They have been blessed in a sombre temple ritual, composed of elaborate hand gestures and earnest genuflection, treated with the same amount of gravity as later outright manifestations of supernatural power by way of a heightened and discordant audio design emphasising striking idiophonic percussive sounds. Ho assumes, though, that such realms are distinct and separate from the ordered rational world informed by the six senses, and so is surprised and disconcerted to find his lonely journey across the vast, overwhelmingly beautiful terrain, not so much interrupted by as infused with uncanny sights and unsettling encounters: a glimpse of a spectral woman in white who shimmers in the mist that perpetually floats above a mountain lake; ghostly flute music with no player, emanating from a deserted rest-stop pavilion; and an inscrutable Lama in orange robes who seems regularly to appear out of nowhere as Ho makes his way between eerie empty staging outposts (with their perfectly preserved but now-empty monasteries and religious statuary) and the serenely picturesque mountain trails across which he tenaciously treks inbetween.
This portion of the narrative echoes the opening act of many film versions of Dracula (as well as Stoker’s novel itself), and recalls Jonathan Harker’s journey into the wilderness of Transylvania, where he too is expecting merely to complete a straightforward clerical task, before finding himself immured by the irrational forces of a great supernatural evil. Here, though, Yungqing Ho's journey seems to find its resolution in a destination that appears at first far less threatening and uncanny than his route getting to it, despite initially falling foul of a shambling oddball mute manservant on the outskirts, called Old Chan (Feng Tien) -- the story’s equivalent of an Igor figure from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Arriving at General Han’s deserted fort compound to be told that his host (Yueh Sun) is in fact already dead, Ho is offered sanctuary in the already-prepared rooms of Han’s favourite concubine by the General’s smilingly friendly chief advisor Tsui Hung-chin (Lin Tung), and introduced to the only other residents of the complex: a raspy-voiced but voluble busybody housekeeper by the name of Madam Wang (Rainbow Hsu) and a young maid-servant called Quing; but most significantly, Wang’s beautiful daughter Melody (played with relish by Dragon Inn heroine Feng Hsu), a former court musician whom the cajoling housekeeper seems unusually eager to pair-off with the bookish visiting scholar. Instead of a horror story or fantasy epic, we appear to have stumbled into a domestic comedy of manners-cum- sex farce in which Madam Wang and her maid-servant conspire to have Yunqing Ho act as tutor to Wang’s daughter in the hope of getting the two close enough for long enough to marry them off. Rainbow Hsu, as the domineering Madam Wang, here provides the film with one of its more unexpected highlights thanks to her enjoyable turn as a comedy grotesque, but we soon realise (although Yunqing Ho does not) that supernatural machinations are afoot when Melody’s recreational drumming skills turn out to have hypnotic properties that allow her to put the young copiest into a memory-erasing trance, thus allowing her to claim the next morning that he has had his way with her while drunk and is now honour-bound to agree to Wang’s terms of marriage! This is particularly unfortunate, because no sooner has Yunqing Ho tied the knot and consummated his marriage to the sinister Melody for real (a love scene overlaid with nature imagery in a montage that combines scenes of sunsets and mountain lakes, and cuts from phallic images of fish swimming to a spider’s web being spun) than he falls in love with the daughter of the widow of a frontier magistrate, called Cloud (Sylvia Chang), who lives in a simple dwelling with her mother outside the fort.
The jealous love rivalry that ensues between Melody and Cloud unleashes a multitude of outlandish supernatural interventions, and it becomes more and more apparent to Ho that he is in fact surrounded not be people but by earth-bound spirits, who are the very souls he has been called here to help pass to the next stage of their existence. All the relationships that have heretofore been established between the characters are revealed, therefore, to be entirely false. In truth, Melody is the chief instigator of all preceding events: a serial murderer during life who killed Wang, Quing and Cloud before being tried for her crimes at General Han’s court where she was exiled to die alone. Seeking to settle her scores, Melody's wandering spirit was granted occult powers by a misguided Taoist priest (Hui-lou Chen) and she became a powerful demon who has enslaved the souls of Madam Wang and Quing to help her steal the sutra and use it to resurrect herself in the world of humans. The Taoist priest and his Lama assistant (the traveller who shadowed Yungqing Ho’s journey across the mountains) are trying to stop her, but her powers are growing too strong to resist. All of this is later explained by way of the priest’s prayer shrine, which has the ability to function as a cinema screen that explains to people what motivates their actions by reflecting images of events from their past lives back at them (thus allowing King Hu to deliver convenient info dump flashbacks to his own characters as well as to the viewer). These revelations also mean that Ho’s love for Cloud is as doomed as his marriage to Melody, for, as the laconic Lama magician points out: “an affair between a man and a ghost can never work out.”
But it can certainly leave a strong impression -- as Hu demonstrates repeatedly throughout the colourful three hours-plus of this by-turns visually poetic, awe-inspiring, comedic, and hallucinogenic audio-visual experience. (And that is, in the end, the best way to think of the movie – as an experience!) Lengthy digressions in the form of serene montages appreciating both the beauty and pitilessness of nature, also suggest oblique ties to the ghostly affairs that play out on the spiritual uplands of human relationships. There are several extraordinary hypnotic scenes in which religious and demonic forces battle each other with opposing rhythmic drumming and lots of coloured smoke. All the skills for shooting action Hu demonstrated in past full-throttle wuxia films are here brought to the service of bonkers gladiatorial supernatural showdowns between Melody and her various antagonists which, in other hands, could’ve looked rather weak given the poverty of the special effects budget. Here, through a combination of effective editing, precisely choreographed gesture, showy camera movement and lots of that coloured smoke, alongside a clamorous audio track of thunderous drumming and discordant janglings, they are rendered utterly strange and compelling. Only one short sequence relies on the sort of wire work more usually prevalent in the wuxia genre, but it’s a good one – and infused with a peculiar fantastical mood that’s equal parts fairy tale and nightmare. It involves Quing the maid emerging from a sort of earthworks in the middle of a sunlit clearing that Ho and Cloud encounter after having trekked through a darkened gothic forest of crooked burnt tree trunks while trying to escape the malign influence of Melody. With the uncanny sound of fluttering feathers high up in the audio mix, the evil spirit swoops and acrobatically dive bombs the couple from above like a bird of prey, at the same moment demonstrating all the fragile grace and beauty of a gravity-surfing butterfly. Astonishingly, this sequence was one of the things cut from the film when it was originally released in the west in a shortened even more incomprehensible form!
It is not until the concluding act, though, that King Hu finally allows the film to register a fully recognisable Gothic mode that fully embraces the irreducible irrationality of its subject matter; by which point, because of its now total disdain for anything approaching narrative logic, combined with a determination to bombard the viewer with a full sensory overload of uncanny supernatural stimuli, the movie begins to resemble, in both visual style and textual tone, the neon-soaked nightmare fairy tale of Dario Argento’s Suspiria: with a delerious coloured light-drenched showdown that involves multiple doppelgängers and plentiful psychokinetic pyrotechnics, it concludes with a splendidly gooey body horror meltdown, at which point the film apparently cycles back to the beginning in a Dead of Night-style coda.
This amazing piece of work gets a very nice treatment for its UK outing, with extras featuring a video essay by David Cairns, an insightful talk by former King Hu associate and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns, and a noteworthy booklet featuring informative writings by King Hu and screenwriter Ling Chung, a splendid essay by Glenn Kenny, and a plethora of behind-the-scenes photographs featuring the cast and crew filming on location in South Korea.