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With: Shih Chun, Hsu Feng, Sylvia Chang, Tung Lin, Rainbow Hsu, Tien Feng, Chen Hui-lou, Ng Ming-choi, Sun Yueh
Written by: King Hu, Chung Ling
Directed by: King Hu
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 191
Date: 09/13/1979

Legend of the Mountain (1979)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Forest Ghosts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hong Kong filmmaker King Hu is known as the man who elevated wuxia films to a new level and inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps. His martial arts classics Come Drink with Me (1966), Dragon Inn (1967), and A Touch of Zen (1971) are known to fans, but his later film Legend of the Mountain — now restored and released on a gorgeous new Blu-ray by Kino Lorber — is considered "underrated." A good reason for this is that it's somewhat undefinable. The IMDB calls it a "fantasy horror" and Wikipedia adds "mystery" to that description, and yet those tags don't quite grapple with what this movie actually is. To mix things up, the movie contains some martial arts jumping and flying, but no fighting.

It does feature ghosts, but they are not stringy-haired and do not jump out suddenly. There are a couple of weirdly unsettling moments, but this is hardly a horror movie. What happens is this: naïve scholar He Qingyun (Shih Chun, also in Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen) gets a job copying the pages of a powerful Buddhist sutra, one that is said to be able to free trapped spirits from hell. He is sent to a quiet place to do this work, and, after wandering around in the woods for a while, he ends up at an old monastery, and meets Mr. Tsui (Tung Lin) who happily invites him in and gives him a place to stay and work. He also meets the freakish, sometimes-violent mute Old Chang (Tien Feng) and the pushy, gabby old Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu).

Madame Wang talks him into tutoring her "kid," who turns out to be the beautiful Melody (Hsu Feng, who, weirdly, looks a lot like Catherine Zeta-Jones). After a night of drinking and listening to Melody's hypnotic drum-playing, He Qingyun wakes up to the claim that he had his way with her, though he remembers nothing. She bullies him into marrying her and he lamely agrees. But then he meets the equally beautiful Cloud (Sylvia Chang) and a battle begins. In the story's margins, we get a priest (Chen Hui-lou) and a lama (Ng Ming-choi), who play enchanted instruments, throw colored smoke, and can disappear at will.

Some, or perhaps, all, of these characters are ghosts that are after the sutra, so that they can have power over the afterlife. There are, apparently, some rules. It seems that He Qingyun must finish his copying job before anything can happen, although for what reason I was not sure. The characters frequently lie to our poor, not-too-swift scholar, and at one point Melody even disguises herself as Cloud, further confusing the issue. In the third hour, director Hu also provides long flashbacks showing the origin stories for Melody, Cloud, and Old Chang, which might have been a narrative no-no, if he weren't a master.

As Kino Lorber points out on the box copy, Legend of the Mountain is a visual poem in the vein of Terrence Malick. It's about landscape and nature and the way things move through it. The weird ramblings of plot, the way that things often take too long, are all just ways of urging us to sit back and drink it all in. It wants us to meditate on the beauty of things and the way that life can be languid. The idea of ghosts in the story lends a further timelessness to it. Death does not mean the end in this movie. Even though the hero is urged to finish his copying job as quickly as he can, there doesn't seem to be any actual hurry.

Hu has a marvelous way of moving his camera between trees to create a changing perspective, or capturing waterfalls or sunbeams, or the way that smoke billows from fire. He seems to be in tune with these things, and martial arts — or ghosts or what have you — are only part of the movements of nature. Legend of the Mountain is a beautiful movie to be sure, but it's also a movie that understands beauty. The story may be a bit hokey, and it may be a bit hard to sympathize with the slightly dim scholar, but sitting back and enjoying this long journey can be amazingly refreshing.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray claims to have been remastered in 4K; I only have a regular Blu-ray player, but it looks great to me. The audio, especially the high-pitched woodwind music score, is a bit screechy, and tested the limits of my speakers (I heard some rattling from time to time), but it's forgivable. Extras include a liner notes essay by novelist Grady Hendrix, an interview with film critic Tony Rayns, a video essay by film critic Travis Crawford, a photo gallery, and a trailer.

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