Legend of the Mountain

Though his output over a thirty-year career was very small, there is little doubt that King Hu was one of the greatest and most influential directors of our time. He has unfortunately not gained the recognition that he deserves due possibly to his sporadic output, the difficulty today of seeing quality transfers of his films and also possibly the subject matter and themes that he dealt with. Hu was fascinated with Chinese history, culture and myth and his films reflected this. In films such as Come Drink with Me, Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen and The Fate of Lee Khan, Hu reinvented the wuxia and the martial arts genres. Hu also gave women very strong roles in his films showing them to be as fierce and courageous if not more so than any man is. Cheng Pei Pei, Hsu Feng and Polly Shang Kwan all flowered under Hus tutelage.

The Legend of the Mountain was made a few years after Hus classic films and he seems to be somewhat adrift in this supernatural tale of ghosts. His painterly eye is still intact and there are some beautiful shots of landscapes and authentic detailed looking sets, but his usual dynamic narrative drive is very much missing in this film. Hu seems much too willing to take his time, gets caught up with the cinematography at times to the detriment of the story and the film almost takes on the rambling pace of a shaggy dog story. It is well over an hour into this 115-minute film before it finally starts coming together and something concrete begins to happen. Until then Hu spends the time filling the screen with atmosphere and hints of evil, but a good trimming was needed here.

Hsu Feng, Ho, Tsui and Sylvia Chang
Ho is assigned by a Buddhist temple to transcribe some of the Sutras and he goes off to a secluded part of the country where he will have peace and quiet and be able to concentrate on his work. On his way, Ho starts seeing strange visions of a girl playing a flute but she always disappears before his eyes. Is it a mirage or something more? Ho is greeted by his host Tsui who tells him that the reason that so few people are about is that most of the populace has died in various wars.

Ho is also introduced to Tsuis daughter, Hsu Feng, who initially appears to be a gentle and traditional woman but there is something behind her eyes that contradicts this image. The mute servant keeps frantically trying to signal Ho that something is wrong and a Taoist priest is constantly keeping watch on the family. One evening Ho gets drunk and in the morning an abashed Hsu Feng hints to him that they spent the night in bed. Ho then feels it is his duty to marry her. All seems fine, but Ho has a sense of uneasiness that he simply cant put his finger on. Hsu quietly urges him to finish his work.

While walking one day Ho runs into Sylvia Chang and the two of them begin a friendship but she too has a mysterious aura around her. She tries to warn him of something but is unable to. Hsu Feng becomes jealous of this friendship and things finally start coming to a head. It soon becomes clear that Ho has entered a land full of ghosts some good some evil and that his sutras when completed will allow them to reincarnate.
One of the weaknesses of this film is the character of Ho. He simply seems so lost and so naïve that you have to wonder if he was born yesterday. The actor who portrays him gives him no sense of heroism, but instead he comes off as a victim that only reacts to what goes on about him. As is often the case, Hu gives the good roles to the two actresses. Hsu Feng in particular is excellent as a ghost desperately needing to be reincarnated and willing to do anything to accomplish this. A very young Sylvia Chang is quite lovely and endearing in her role.
After this film Hu was only to make a few more films none of them approaching the genius of his earlier work but his legendary status was already set and his influence on the directors of the 1980s such as Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung was soon to take place.

Here is an interesting article on King Hu.

My rating for this film: 6.0