[Film Review] Legend of the Mountain (1979)

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English Title: Legend of the Mountain
Original Title: Shan zhong chuan qi 山中传奇
Year: 1979
Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Genre: Fantasy, Mystery, Horror
Director: King Hu 胡金铨
Writers:
King Hu 胡金铨
Chung Ling 钟玲
Music: Wu Ta-Chiang 吴大江
Cinematography: Henry Chan 陈俊杰
Cast:
Shih Chun 石隽
Hsu Feng 徐枫
Sylvia Chang 张艾嘉
Tung Lin 佟林
Wu Ming-Tsai 吴明才
Rainbow Hsu 徐彩虹
Tien Feng 田丰
Chen Hui-Lou 陈慧楼
Sun Yeuh 孙越
Kam Man-Ting
Jeon Shook
Rating: 7.9/10

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King Hu’s luxuriantly restored grandeur of a Chinese ghost story takes place in the Song Dynasty (roughly 11th century), running over three hours, LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN bracingly takes its audience to get a glimpse of many sylvan heritage-certified sites in South Korea, whereas its story-line depicts the unheimlich occurrences pivots around a hapless man of letters Ho (Shih Chun), who is a non-believer of necromancy, but accepts a job to transcribe an all-powerful Buddhist sutra, which presumably will bring nirvana to legions of dead soldiers who are the casualty of the ongoing warfare between Song and Western Xia Empire.

A guileless Ho is set to the border to meet a Mr. Tsui (Tung Lin), a consigliere of a deceased general (Sun Yeuh), who can arrange him for a placid place to do his meritorious deed, but soon he is ensnared into a honey trap set by Ms. Chang (Rainbow Hsu) and her daughter Melody (Hsu Feng), and King explicitly notifies us that Mr. Tsui is also complicit. In the wake of his purportedly improper behavior towards a comely Melody one night under the influence of alcohol (which is actually triggered by Melody’s hypnotic tambour beats), an oblivious Ho marries Melody with alacrity, and the latter dutifully assists him in his transcribing workload, but the fitful presence of a lama (Wu Ming-Tsai) perturbs their specious serenity.

King makes ascertain that something is iffy about every single individual around Ho with manifest gesticulations that appreciably piques audience’s curiosity, although one might safely conjecture that the ulterior motive is all about the sutra well in advance, and soon Ho is paired with Cloud (Sylvia Chang), a beneficent ingénue when Melody’s malevolent temperament starts to take the center and repulse everybody else, but still mired in the friend-or-foe pressure-cooker until the lama shows the backstory of Melody and Cloud, among others. Ho is urged to finish his transcription by Tsui and Cloud before Melody and co. can lay their hands on it, but after everything is said and done (all the undead meets their perdition), King tentatively hints a pipe dream scenario, does the whole cock-and-bull story really happen to Ho?

Clearly, King is immensely enamored of the locality’s breathtaking landscape, and goes to great lengths in capturing its fauna and flora with illuminated pillow shots whenever Chinese traditional music pipes up, whether diegetic or not (the score is credited by musician Wu Ta-Chiang), be it from Melody’s aggressive drum or Cloud’s euphonious flute, although it is severely at the expense of narrative momentum, and renders the whole work a tad padded-out and incoherent.

On a more inspiring note, King intentionally holds back his characteristic and expeditious kung-fu shtick which has made his mark in DRAGON IN (1967) or A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971), and hammers out a series of slightly haphazard but clamorous confrontations, mostly between Melody and the lama during their elongated percussive smack-off, tarted up by vivid-colored smoke, efficient special effects (wire-fu included) and sharp editing skills.

A mudra-exerting Shih Chun might appear somewhat feckless reckoning that he is kit up with Confucian etiquette sans blistering martial art, but enough to make for a compassionate, reluctant hero; there is Hsu Feng, projecting her fierce glares with unadulterated virulence, proves herself to be a superlative villain when she is requested, and emphatically humbles Sylvia Chang’s angelic presence into nonentity. An abiding impression pertains to the anonymous actress Rainbow Hsu, who plays Melody’s mother, the officious but sprightly Ms. Chang, is that she is cross-dressed and played by a male actor, so it comes as a real surprise that it is apparently not the case (according to the source on various internet websites though).

An eerie oriental gem cunningly cashes in on traditional mythology, occult and legend, undermined only by occasional longueurs as the result of its maker’s undue passion sparked by the purlieu, nevertheless, King Hu’s scintillating idiom of synesthetic felicity is an awestruck coup de maître, that no one can ever gainsay.

referential films: King Hu’s DRAGON INN (1967, 7.6/10), A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971, 8.1/10); Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s THE ASSASSIN (2015, 8.7/10); Ching Siu-Tung’s A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987, 7.3/10).

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