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May 04, 2018

Legend of the Mountain


Shan zhong zhuan qi
King Hu - 1979
Kino Classics BD Region A

Even the larger widescreen televisions most people would have at home don't seem appropriate for viewing Legend of the Mountain. This is made most clear in several shots with characters seen from a distance, as well as the many panoramic shots within forests and along fields dominated by the sky. My first exposure to King Hu was with his most famous film, A Touch of Zen, presented as part of the New York Film Festival in 1976, seen on the famously big screen of the Ziegfeld Theater.

Unlike A Touch of Zen, or most of Hu's other films, Legend of the Mountain is not a martial arts story, with only a few short scenes of action. Taken from a story from Pu Songling, the story takes place in 11th Century China. Qingyun, getting by as a copyist of documents, takes the job of reproducing a Buddhist sutra on behalf of a temple. Qingyun is directed to a remote location to do his work in peace. The story is one of several legends revolved around scholars who fall in love with female ghosts. The sutra is said to give one power over the spirits of the dead, either for good or evil. Hu would revisit this material, also from Pu Songling, with his final film, Painted Skin.

The supplements to the blu-ray help in explaining how King Hu deliberately chose to make a film that was a departure in style and content. At over three hours, the leisurely pace imitates Qingyun's meandering hike to the location where he is to copy the sutras. On his way, Qingyun glimpses a woman playing a flute who appears to disappear at will. Even when he gets set up to do his work, Qingyun is distracted by two mother and daughter pairs, Taoist and Buddhist priests, and an old retainer with protruding teeth. Whatever thoughts Ho has about dismissing the supernatural are forgotten by the end of the film.

With frequent montages of animals and lotus ponds, only the natural world is to be trusted. Close-ups of spider webs indicate that even in nature there is treachery, a hint of what is to happen to Qingyun. The film was shot in Korea, where Hu was able to take advantage of the still well preserved old temples and stone buildings.

Shih Chun, the toothy star of several King Hu films, plays Qingyun. While virtually retired from acting, it seems less than coincidental that Shih returned to acting for an appearance in Hsiao-Hsien Hou's The Assassin, another period film that went against audience expectations. Hsu Feng, an actress who frequently worked with Hu, plays Melody, a young woman whose designs on Qingyun turn out to be less than harmonious. Hsu, who later turned to film production including Farewell, My Concubine, was largely responsible for financing the restoration of this film. The still very active Sylvia Chang plays Cloud, Melody's rival for the affections of Qingyun.

The blu-ray comes with an essay by Grady Hendrix that discusses the film primarily within the context of Hu's other work. Travis Crawford's visual essay also discusses Legend of the Mountain as part of Hu's career, also covering some of the changes in the Hong Kong film industry, where Hu got his start, initially as an actor. An interview with Tony Rayns was ported over from the recent British Eureka release. Taken from a 4K scan, this is the complete version of the film as intended by King Hu.

legend poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 4, 2018 07:44 AM