Thursday, March 5, 2020


I am continuing to celebrate the release of Strange Tales of Songling with reviews of movies that helped in inspire the game. Today I want to talk about Legend of the Mountain

THE RESTORED 4K EDITION  This is an interesting review because I just saw the restored bluray by Kino Classics, which has a 191 minute run time. The restoration was done by the Taiwan Film institute with financing by Hsu Feng (who stars in this and many other King Hu movies). The restored version is available through Eureka and Kino Classics. I purchased both but only the Kino Classics bluray was available in region A format when I bought them. The version that inspired me when I was working on Strange Tales was the 112 minute cut. Until recently the three hour cut wasn't available (the 112 cut was the one released in theaters and on video and DVD). The longer run time makes a very big difference. 

For this review I watched the Kino Classics bluray, 4K restoration. Both the Eureka and the Kino Classics come with an interview of film Critic Tony Rayns (who knew King Hu and sheds some light on the differences between the 112 minute and 191 minute cuts). I highly recommend watching the interview as it contains a ton of helpful information. The Eureka version has a video essay by David Cairns while the Kino Classics version contains a video essay by Travis Crawford. Both have essays in the included booklets (by different writers) but only the Eureka version has an informative introduction by Chung Ling (the script writer of Legend of the Mountain and King Hu's wife) and a preface that includes King Hu's thoughts on the movie (he passed away in 1997, well before this restoration). The Eureka version also contains both a DVD and Bluray (I can watch the DVD, but the Bluray will not play on my machine due to it being Region B). 

Personally I think the Eureka booklet is much better. The introduction by Chung Ling is incredibly helpful and explains the premise of the movie clearly. The essay written by Glenn Kenny also is better than the one included in the Kino Classics version (which struck me as too casual and earthy for a movie like this). Chung Ling is also a scholar of Chinese literature, and based the screenplay on a Song Dynasty story called A Cave Full of Ghosts in the West Mountains. Her introduction provides crucial context and thoughts on this topic. 

I should also note that some of the information in the booklets and interviews appears contradictory. Some of this is, I think, just a product of people recollecting things differently, but some of it seems like it should have either been more thoroughly explained or smoothed over. It isn't anything major but minor points about the plot and what is going on exactly are described differently. For the purposes of this review I went strictly by the subtitles and if I was in doubt about a detail, I gave more weight to statements by Chung Ling or King Hu than other sources. For the character names, I went by those provided in the press release kit from Kino Classics (available on their website). 

THE REVIEW  Spoiler warning: this review contains spoilers. Because this film contains revelations and spooky surprises, you may want to watch the film before reading.  

Shih Chun as Yunqing 
Legend of the Mountain was directed by King Hu in 1979, written by Chung Ling, and stars Hsu Feng (Melody), Sylvia Chang (Cloud), Shih Chun (Ho Yunqing), Rainbow Hsu (Madame Wang), Tung Lin (Tsui), Tien Feng (Old Chang), Ng Ming-Choi (the Lama), and Chen Hui-lou (the Taoist Priest). It was filmed in south Korea, as part of a two-movie agreement (the other film, made in the same year, was Raining on the Mountain). 

Legend of the Mountain is about a scholar named Ho Yunqing who, having failed the imperial exams, finds work translating a buddhist scripture called the Mudra Sutra, on a largely abandoned mountain fort along a march between the Song Empire and the Xi Xia. There he meets Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu), a man named Tsui (Tung Lin), and the Madame Wang's daughter, Melody (Hsu Feng). There are brief moments where the supernatural seems to intrude, a beautiful flute player (Sylvia Chang) who appears and disappears, a lama who silently but aggressively interrupts his first meal with the old woman's household, but overall things appear normal. 
Hsu Feng as Melody 

That night Yunqing gets very drunk and is mesmerized by Melody's drumming. In the morning he awakens to discover he slept with Melody (who had escorted him to his chambers at the fort) and agrees to marry her. Slowly it becomes clear there is something amiss in the household, and that a spiritual battle beyond Yunqing's comprehension is being waged on the mountain. Still things remain domestic and tranquil as Yunqing adjusts to married life and continues work on his translation of the Mudra Sutra. 

One day, he ventures to a nearby market with Tsui, but the two decide to stay at an inn along the way when they realize the market will close before they arrive. The inn is run by a woman (Jeong Shook) and her daughter, Cloud (Sylvia Chang). Yunqing goes to gather herbs with Cloud and realizes she is the flute player he saw when he first arrived. It is also apparent that the and Cloud are developing feelings for one another. 
Sylvia Chang as Cloud 

When he returns the next day, Melody appears jealous and outraged. However, over the course of the rest of the film a number of revelations make it clear this is more than simple jealousy. Melody is only interested in the Mudra Sutra and plans to kill (and later to enslave) Yunqing once he finishes the translation. There are hints up to this point that she has supernatural powers, especially when using her drum. It dawns on him that she is a ghost, as is Cloud. A mysterious Lama and Daoist priest have been working to subdue Melody (and appear to have pacified Cloud as well; though her nature seems more naturally inclined to good). During a series of clashes between these forces, the Lama reveals a vision of Melody's past and we learn that she was a favored performer for the general stationed at the fort who committed a number of misdeeds (including the murder of Cloud). Eventually Yunqing, with the help of Cloud, Tsui and the Lama, finishes the translation and this enables him to use the mudra to vanquish Melody. 

Most of the spiritual battles in Legend of the Mountain use musical instruments. And music is important overall to the story. Melody's power is expressed through her drumming, the Lama uses clashing cymbals and Cloud plays the Flute. This use of music adds to the experience, because it is a movie visuals and sound are so important, but also helps to illustrate what is going on during the clashes between the ghosts and holy men. 

There is tremendous focus on atmosphere and nature. King Hu also establishes a real sense of place, even if that place exists on the border of both the political world and the natural world. I am not often a fan of extensive landscape shots in movies, but with King Hu, it is like looking at a painting and it feels connected to what is going on in the movie. 

The ghosts in this movie are quite grounded. For the most part, they act and live just like human beings, except for occasional flashes of their strange nature. This is one of the things that makes the movie work so very well. The ghosts' nature is mostly conveyed through behavior. It takes time for the viewer to realize that they have been witnessing Melody's magic from the moment she first bangs her drum (something that occurs in the scene she is introduced in). I think this approach works quite well. And Hu avoids very obvious flashes of the supernatural until this dawning realization is already quite strong. 

The special effects are minimal. The horror of the film arrives with subtlety and the way the ghosts and their magic is portrayed is usually through visuals that could easily be dismissed as products of the natural world. The biggest clue to something strange is the heavy fog that pervades most of the landscape. Occasionally the fog turns into something richer and more ominous. By the end of the film, a dense red fog is produced by the magic of the ghosts. 

Melody on the cusp of death 
Perhaps the most supernatural scene occurs when Melody is brought by the ghost wardens before a magistrate of hell and sentenced (something that turns out to be a mere inconvenience for a ghost of her power). By the time this happens, the lines between the real world and the ghostly world have been so effectively blurred, it doesn't even feel all that strange. It is an eerie scene but the way it is shot and presented, makes it borderline mundane. I think that sense that you are shifting between the human and spiritual realm is present throughout the film and important to its uneasy feel. 

Melody playing her drum 
When I first saw Legend of the Mountain, even at the shorter 112 minute run time, it was the kind of movie that rewarded patient viewing. It is less action packed than many of the earlier King Hu films, but no less interesting. The pace is definitely slow, especially with the over three hour runtime of the restored version. But it isn't dull at all. It keeps you interested even when very little is happening. It has a warmth that makes me want to get to know the characters and explore the fort and surrounding mountains. 

The movie succeeds at creating a creeping sense of unease, bit by bit. The revelations unfurl so slowly, you almost don't notice them. This gives it a classic horror movie flavor, almost as if Hu wanted to preserve the mood found in places like the very beginning of Dracula (where much of the horror is Harker's budding awareness that he is a prisoner in a vampire's castle). 

As a villain, Melody is powerful and terrifying. Again this isn't a film that is packed with action, so when conflict or action arises (even if it is as simple as Hsu Feng beating a drum) it is that much more intense. And Hsu Feng does a remarkable job of conveying her potency, but also of concealing it. By the end of the movie, you feel Yunqing's peril in your bones. 

From a gaming point of view, there is a lot of inspiration to be had here. Too much to list in fact. Gamemasters will find plenty of magic to draw on, see an interesting illustration of how a spiritual battle might unfold, and find some unusual ghostly powers to use. When I first saw it, it inspired me to make an afterlife sandbox, using a similar mountain location. I took some of the basic layout presented by the film (the fort, the inn, etc) and added in some Fox spirits with a problem similar to one I remembered from a Pu Songling Story (a family of foxes awaiting a fated disaster). That was the seed of my sandbox, and the rest of it was an endless land of mountains and smoke, where player characters go when they die.  I am certain other GM's will be equally inspired. 

The restoration is wonderful. I remember watching the 112 minute version, which was faded and grainy, and this now looks like it was filmed yesterday. Hsu Feng sponsored the financing of the film, and she was responsible for other restorations as well. I said this in my review of the Touch of Zen restoration, but I believe having someone involved who was there during the filming (in such a key role) gives me a lot more faith that the restoration is true to Hu's original vision (with restorations you never know how much is being altered). 

King Hu is sometimes called the Stanley Kubrick of Chinese Cinema. I think that comparison captures a key quality of his movies (the stunning visual presentation) but is also a bit unfair and misleading (Hu has his own unique style and his abilities as a director rival Kubrick's). This is probably not the ideal first King Hu movie to see if you haven't seen any of his films yet. His most highly regarded movie is probably A Touch of Zen, and worth watching before viewing Legend on the Mountain as well. There are a number of similarities between the two movies. However, I would recommend people new to King Hu start with Dragon Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan or Come Drink with Me before tackling this one. Legend of the Mountain is a very different movie from his early films and I think the languid style of it is easier to embrace if you've seen something like Dragon Inn, first. These are just my own personal recommendations as a fan, others may have a different point of view. 

*Her exact nature is a bit unclear to me from the subtitles and material in the DVDs/Bluray. 

No comments:

Post a Comment