‘Legend of the Mountain’: Film Review

‘Legend of the Mountain,’ an underexposed work by wuxia pioneer King Hu, gets its first U.S. theatrical run.

Students, count Legend of the Mountain as a reminder to hit those books hard: fail your exams and you might get stuck not just with jobs of rote drudgery, but with demons and sorcerers constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you to work faster. This lesser-known work by Touch of Zen and Come Drink With Me auteur King Hu, just restored for its American debut, contains a charming take on magic for viewers willing to stretch their attention spans. Beautiful settings and eccentric effects work enliven a tale that’s more than meets the eye, giving budding wuxia scholars ample reason to set their import Blu-rays aside for an evening.

The least interesting character in the film is its protagonist, Ho (Chun Shih), a scholar who failed his exams and now works as a copyist. When Buddhist monks hire him to copy an ancient sutra with the power to release “lost souls,” they send Ho to a remote house so he can work without interruption. For 15 or 20 minutes, Ho trudges through forests and stops to ask directions — the first of several sequences that will convince contemporary viewers they could easily slice an hour off this three-hour-plus film without losing anything in terms of mood or story.

The Bottom Line

A slow-to-start but delightful tale of ancient magic and clueless men.

Eventually, Ho finds his host, Tsui (Lin Tung), who lives in a vast abandoned fortress. Though he is here to escape distractions, Ho hasn’t even opened his bags before a local busybody has made herself his full-time maid and coerced him to set time aside to tutor her adult daughter Melody (Feng Hsu). Predictably, Melody presents more than academic distraction, and after a night of drunken indiscretion (was Ho drugged?), the two are soon married. (Cue all the birds-and-bees visual euphemisms for sex Hu can squeeze into a short wedding-night montage of cautiously framed bare skin.)

Despite her name, Melody’s musical gifts are percussive. To our ears, it may sound like a monotonous ratatatat, but her high-speed work on various hand drums wows her husband. It is also a form of magic, and we understand long before Ho does that Melody and her mom are plotting to steal those sutra texts for their own purpose. Good thing the books are protected by magic prayer beads.

The pace picks up in the second hour, after Ho meets a neighbor named Cloud (Sylvia Chang), sweeter than Melody and seemingly without secret agendas. Is she the same person he has seen in the distance, playing a haunting flute song before vanishing into thin air? With her mother, Cloud introduces Ho to nearby monks, who clearly see a bigger picture in the still-emerging romantic triangle. Ho, bless his passive little heart, remains pretty much oblivious until things are literally exploding all around him.

The third hour exposes secrets hiding behind nearly every character onscreen; while we won’t reveal their nature, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of magic-versus-magic here. As Hu envisions it, spells and such take the form of drumming, clanging cymbals and billowing colored smoke. Some viewers may find this hokey, but watching sorcerers and spirits fight each other this way makes a nice change from the CGI era’s representation of such hard-to-visualize conflicts, where we’re often stuck watching wizards who shoot lightning from their fingertips at each other for 90 seconds until one of them passes out from boredom.

Despite revelations all around, Ho never reveals himself to be secretly interesting. But that hardly matters at this point, as he’s surrounded by denizens of the spirit world bent on destroying or rescuing him. Once the dust (and smoke-bomb powder) settles, few will be surprised to find Ho the only entity unchanged by all this mayhem.

Production company: Feng Nian
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Cast: Chun Shih, Feng Hsu, Sylvia Chang, Lin Tung, Feng Tien, Ng Ming Tsui, Hui Lou Chen, Rainbow Hsu
Director-Screenwriter-Producer-Costume Designer: King Hu
Executive producer: Cheuk Hon Wong
Director of photography: Henry Chan
Editors: Nan Hsiao, King Hu
Composer: Tai King Ng
Venue: Metrograph
In Mandarin with English Subtitles
191 minutes