By Tony Williams.
One in which alert perception and transcendent pleasure in the images offer viewers entry into a new type of cinematic experience.”
Shot back-to-back in South Korea with Raining in the Mountain, similar to the earlier complementary productions of The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) and The Valiant Ones (1974), Legend of the Mountain has always suffered in comparison to its companion film. This is because it usually appears in its 105-minute version designed for general release. However, thanks to the Taiwan Film Archive, King Hu’s version has now appeared in its original running time of 191 minutes with newly translated English subtitles replacing the Americanized ones on earlier editions.
As well as retaining the basic plot that the Hong Kong 1980s Chinese Ghost Stories series produced by Tsui Hark would later popularize, the complete version of Legend of the Mountain restores many of the beautiful landscape and visually symbolic nature scenes missing from the later version. The film is both a tribute to the director’s interest in Chinese artistic traditions as well as an invitation to the viewer to bask in a visual dimension of images that requires contemplation and appropriate cultural recognition far different from Western cinematic traditions. With the exception of the climatic scenes that anticipate many of the visual techniques of later Hong Kong cinema where kinetic movement takes the place of leisurely contemplation, Legend of the Mountain offers the viewer a visual “Touch of Zen” (yes, a mistranslation of the title of the director’s earlier masterpiece). It is one in which alert perception and transcendent pleasure in the images offer viewers entry into a new type of cinematic experience.
Young impoverished scholar Ho Yunquing (played by Hu regular Shih Jun) attempts to replenish his fortunes by accepting a commission from the head of a monastery to transcribe a sutra that will bring peace to the souls of those who perished in an earlier battle. While traveling to his destination, he encounters an unknown woman (Sylvia Chang) who intermittently appears and disappears, playing the flute in one scene. He also encounters other mysterious figures who move in similar ways before finding hospitality in the seemingly deserted Zhenbai Fortress and unexpected union with the enigmatic Melody (Hsu Feng) in a manner reminiscent of their earlier encounter in A Touch of Zen. Ho Yunquing also meets the mysterious woman of the earlier scenes now identified as Cloud and regarded as his new wife’s sworn enemy. It is not long before he discovers that both are really spirits like Joey Wong in A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) who plan his demise. Melody remains committed to her plan of frustrating the afterlife existence of General Han and his soldiers as well as ensuring that her rival for the General’s affections in life will not get a second chance with Ho Yunquing beyond the grave. Cloud, however, becomes attracted to Ho despite the fact that a romantic union is impossible for both according to traditional Chinese mythology.
Ho’s mission is important as Ng Ho notes.
The high priest of the capital is waiting to invoke the sutra to raise the spirits of the human bones in the frontier passes for the process of reincarnation. When the scholar arrives in the Zhenbai Fortress, he falls into the pitfall of sexual desire, losing his urge to work and very nearly losing his life as well. In the frontier wilderness, Hu Yunquing is the only human being. Thus, the film comes across as a process of self-fulfillment, a kind of psychoanalytical session where the self struggles with its ego. A battle ensues for the survival of the soul as well as for the physical self.” (1)
This is fine as far it goes. But, like his earlier role in A Touch of Zen, Ho does not survive on his own but owes much to an alliance of ghostly and human characters, the first being Cloud and Mr. Tsui (Lin Tung) and the second comprising a protective lama (Ng-Ming-choi) who helps him against Melody and her half-bestial ally Old Chang (Tien Feng). Like his earlier films, King Hu emphasizes the role of collaboration even in the different generic world of the ghost story.
Yet even here, there are complexities since Cloud later proves herself a friendly spirit while Taoist priest Yang (Hui Lou-chen) appears to belong to both worlds and aligns himself later with Ng-Ming-choi’s protective lama. In addition, Melody, Tsui, and her surrogate mother conspire to get Ho drunk by spicing his wine. Melody plays a threatening drum repetition, as she will in later scenes to overpower adversaries. Nothing really appears to be what it seems and the narrative challenges Ho and the viewers at the end to work out what has actually happened. When Ho wakes up in the location he originally fell asleep in, one wonders if the preceding film has been a dream. Has he achieved his mission at the end? Alternatively, is he about to set out to achieve his goal?
Perhaps the lack of access to the original version may have motivated Stephen Teo’s earlier critical assessment of the film as “setting the stage for his decline in the 80s.” (2) I would agree that the abrupt resolution involving a combat situation is more characteristic of 80s Hong Kong cinema rather than King Hu’s martial artistry. Nevertheless, the restoration of many elements of visual imagery now reveal that the director really did not engage in a “neglect of tight, coherent narratives in favor of pure style and picturesque imagery” resulting in a plot “that spurts out in between intervals of landscape and imagery.” (3) Many of the restored images complement the plot as in the lyrical and erotic union between Ho Yunquing and Melody in the first part of the film as well as a telling image of a creature caught in a spider’s web reminiscent of one sequence in the opening in A Touch of Zen (1970). It alerts the viewer (if not the hero) to notice the contrast between the tranquil world he supposedly inhabits and its concealed undertones. While the film admittedly has flaws, the full version now restores the “painterly aspects” of Hu’s vision as well as the familiar transcendental editing of his combat sequences of earlier films as seen in the forest battle.
Features include a 21-minute documentary by David Cairns, Screen Legend: The Magic of King Hu. He suggests that the film parallels the Buddhist experience of an element not to be explained but felt, as well as the enigmatic lack of resolution concerning whether the film is understood as a dream or a vision, challenging viewers to consider whether they are following the plot correctly. Cairns notes parallels to the work of Sergio Leone, suggesting that Leone operated as an inspiration for King Hu especially in the use of revealing flashbacks that characterize this narrative. However, as in the parallels to Harker’s journey in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and seeing Old Chang as a Renfield figure, such influences are debatable since traditional Chinese culture afforded a treasure trove for Hu to explore rather than unnecessary Western influences.
Tony Rayns also contributes his expertise to the Cairns’ aformentioned feature on the film based on his knowledge and personal friendship with King Hu. He supplies the reason for the South Korean locations as due to subsidies to encourage outside directors to film there the catch being they had to do two films, not one. Thus, Hu shot Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain back to back in an 11-month period during 1977-1978. He selected a Song Dynasty (969-1279) short story to film intending it as a mood piece like his “Anger” contribution to the anthology The Wheel of Life (1983) involving the elements of “Stimmung” that explains the predominant atmospheric elements characterizing this particular film. Feeling and texture rather than action comprise the key elements of this particular work.
Again, Eureka deserves congratulations for bringing this restored version to DVD. Legend of the Mountain is a film demanding a particular type of viewing, contemplation and understanding in a realm of cultural cinematic enlightenment that only King Hu developed in his own inimitable way when his talents were at their peak. Few though Hu’s films were, the latter part of his career was disappointing due more to changing historical and industrial circumstances than any creative lapse on his part. King Hu has still left a very important contribution to understanding cinema as an artistic form. It is one that combats rampant commercialism and too easy accessibility on the part of producers who do not understand that audiences need to be challenged both artistically and intellectually. King Hu’s achievements reveal this to all who wish to explore alternative avenues.
1. Ng Ho, “King Hu and the Aesthetics of Space.” Translated by Stephen Teo). Transcending the Times: King Hu and Eileen Chang. The 22nd International Hong Kong Film Festival. Ed. Law. Kar. Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1998, p. 47.
2. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. London: BFI Publishing, 1997, p. 94.
Tony Williams is an independent writer and a Contributing Editor to Film International.