Legend Of The Mountain (Shan zhong zhuan qi)

Hong Kong/Taiwan (1979) Dir. King Hu

Other than in films set in the jungle, where the sound of pulsating tribal beats usually meant impending danger for the interloping white man, drums never felt scary truly until the arrival of Black Sabbath’s debut album in 1970. Nine years later, the legendary King Hu decided to up the ante…

Somewhere during the 11th century, a failed scholar Ho Quingyun (Shih Chun) is tasked by a Buddhist monk to translate a powerful sutra said to counter demonic power and evil spirits. Needing somewhere quiet to work, Ho is recommended a quiet monastery in the mountains. Along the way Ho sees a number of strange visions, like a ghostly woman playing the flute and a disappearing monk.

When Ho finally arrives at the monastery, he is taken in by Mr Tsui (Tung Lin), Madam Wang (Rainbow Hsu), and Wang’s daughter Melody (Feng Hsu). After drinking too much at dinner, Ho awakens the next morning to learn he was now married to Melody, which he doesn’t remember. This is just the start of the strange happenings that sees Ho caught up in a fight between good and evil.

If you to want to see this film for yourself, be aware it runs for a bum-numbing 3 hours and 12 minutes! Such epic length won’t be a deterrent for some, but Legend Of The Mountain really didn’t need to be that long. Prior to his Blu-ray release, there was an edited version with over 80 minutes excised from it, which must have been disruptive to the narrative flow.

Yet, if endless longueurs of Ho traipsing through the mountains or musical performances accompanied by David Attenborough-style nature footage were dropped, the film would lose some of its cinematic marvel. Not that the imagery should be everything to make a film worthwhile or enjoyable but this is a lushly shot opus is an exception. The argument is whether this justifies the epic run time for a film that actually isn’t epic in scope.

Honestly, it could have been completed in under two hours, yet paradoxically it is not so much that time has been wasted, rather the action could have been sped up – Ho doesn’t reach the monastery until half an hour into the film. Like the pacing, Ho is slow to notice things are a bit odd with his hosts, oblivious to the sideward glances they exchange with each other. When he discovers he has married Melody, Ho accepts it rather than protest the ridiculousness of it.

Melody is quite persuasive through the hypnotic powers of her drumming, maintaining a terrific pace for long periods. No, Melody isn’t replicating 1970’s prog rock drum solos but is using her demonic powers to conquer Ho’s will and fend off the presence of Buddhist monk Lama (Ng Ming Tsui) trying to save Ho, in a manic drum off!

Whilst Lama is forced to retreat, Ho finds another ally, in innkeeper’s daughter Cloud (Sylvia Chang), whose sweetness appeals to Ho, raising the ire of Melody. At first it is all innocent until Cloud starts to like Ho too, but like Melody, she is not quite the woman Ho thinks she is either, the enmity between the two women raging for a while.

Just when the film feels like it has reached its conclusion, we still have an hour left so Hu fills this final period with flashbacks explaining the mystery behind the saga and the characters. There are no complaints about the content and the way the stories converge, other than coming at a point when the viewer might be past caring after two hours.

Unlike other King Hu films, there is no martial arts fighting, just a bit of flying about, with the battles conducted through percussion and coloured smoke filled explosions. It all sounds very comical and may raise a titter, but it is executed with aplomb by the serious cast, mostly comprised of regular Hu collaborators. The effects are cheap, with the smoke movements achieved by reversing the footage, but it doesn’t look offensively cheap, just a little outdated in a post-Star Wars world.

I’m probably in the minority here but I kept seeing similarities to Japanese oddity House from 1977 in the spooky atmosphere and some of the weirder moments. Nothing here is as surreal or outrageous as anything seen in House, but that was really my first point of reference with regard to some of the aesthetic touches.

But as what is ultimately a wu xia ghost story, Hu and co-writer Ling Chung crafted quite a tidy tale that doesn’t give all its secrets away, notably in which characters are on Ho’s side and who he should be wary of. One criticism however, is that Ho is something of a milquetoast lead, too gullible and blandly nice, leaving Shih Chun to either grin like an idiot or look bemused.

Even with a stern demeanour and evil intentions, Feng Hsu is a smouldering presence as Melody, showing far more charisma than Ho, as does Sylvia Chang as Cloud whilst still radiating as the cute Yin to Melody’s dark Yang. Another Hu favourite, Tien Feng plays mute servant Old Cheng, essentially a comic figure with his silly oversized vampire fangs and arguably the most incongruous character here.

As mentioned earlier, the cinematography is exceptional. The camera lovingly captures every shimmering light on water, every shake of a leaf, ripple of grass, or the golden haze of sunset to create a series of eye-watering tableaux born to seen in HD. Coupled with the colourful costumes and timeless appeal of the traditional architecture this is a stunning showreel to behold.

Legend Of The Mountain will likely be a test of patience for reasons already discussed but it can’t be called a bad film for those same reasons. It is not even self-indulgent or pretentiously long and holds interest thanks to the strength of the story and immersive visuals, it’s just too long, but certainly worth a watch for King Hu fans.