Legend of the Mountain (1979)

Reviewed by: STSH
Date: 05/12/2013

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 08/29/2006
Summary: wine, sutras and drumming...

this is the fourth film i've watched, from legendary director, king hu. 'come drink with me' was pretty good, 'dragon inn' was better and 'a touch of zen' is a masterpiece; i'd probably place 'legend of the mountain' somewhere between 'dragon inn' and 'a touch of zen'. that's very good...

shih jun, a king hu regular, plays a scholar named ho, who's been charged with translating an ancient sutra. to undertake the translation, ho travels to a deserted fortress, where he can concentrate on his work. this doesn't exactly work out as ho soon becomes embroiled in the mysterious atmosphere of the fort and it's residents...

now, this film is all about the atmosphere and king hu creates it in spades; the soundtrack, sets, cinematography and scenery all add so much to the film. i'd love to have seen this at the cinema when it first came out, i imagine it would have had an even bigger impact.

great stuff...

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 07/29/2006

Scholar Ho (Shih Jun) is charged with the task of transcribing some ancient Buddhist sutras, and travels to an old fort to perform the task in peace and quiet, since the army stationed there were either killed or evacuated. He finds the fort somewhat less then deserted, however, when the mysterious Mr Tsui shows up with his bizarre friend Chang (surprisingly played by veteran actor Tin Fung). More strange figures appear, including an old washerwoman and Melody (Hsu Feng), a striking would-be scholar who is adept at playing the Chinese drum. To further complicate matters, after a supposed romantic encounter with Melody while under the influence, Ho finds himself morally blackmailed into matrimony. There’s also a mysterious and beautiful flautist who periodically appears to Ho, only to disappear when he gets close. What’s more, the sutras he’s transcribing are said to wield terrible power amongst the demons of the underworld.

Pre-dating A CHINESE GHOST STORY by a good seven years or so, and clearly influential on that film (I kept expecting a cry of “Po Ye Po Lo Mi” to issue from the speakers at any second), LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN is a bit of a tricky film to review. It doesn’t have the flash or thunder of A CHINESE GHOST STORY, but that’s not the point. As the reviews below state, this film is all about atmosphere, and it does do an admirable job in creating a suitable setting for the spooky goings on. There are some great landscape shots and again an excellent central location (where did King Hu find all these locations?!)

As in A TOUCH OF ZEN, the central character is played by Shih Jun. I find this guy to be an excellent choice, personally, for precisely the same reason some find him unlikeable – he doesn’t LOOK like a traditional lead actor should look, with his rather protruding teeth and unconventional looks. He plays the kind of unexceptional “everyman” I can relate to, both in this and in A TOUCH OF ZEN. In fact, as the main male protagonist in that film, he didn’t so much as throw a punch in anger in the whole film, and he plays a similar role in LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN. His character serves as a way for the viewer to see through his eyes, sort of like an outside observer witnessing events way out of his control. It’s a device that works very well in my opinion.

The small cast and remote location also serves to add atmosphere. Sylvia Chang as the ghostly flautist is particularly striking, and some of the reverse photography on the smoke effects work quite well. The “sex” scene between Ho and Melody is quite interesting too, cutting away from the actors and showing insects and suchlike perform the act. This culminates in an act of sexual violence between two spiders, which serves as an indication of the true nature of Melody’s character.

However, LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN does contain a bit too much information to truly take in on first viewing, and the viewer is left at the end with more questions than answers. What’s more, it appeared to me to be lacking in a certain special “something” at times, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s not the lack of fight scenes, and it’s not the lack of a good story, but something seemed to be missing.

The Winson DVD does its best, and until a proper remastering job can be done on these King Hu films, it’ll have to do. The soundtrack includes a lot of noise and can be quite distorted at times, and I found the subtitles to be a bit annoying – they appear a fraction of a second after the performer speaks, which sometimes makes it difficult to identify exactly who is saying what in scenes where dialogue comes more quickly or when more than two people are talking together. I agree with the reviews below that this should be watched in Mandarin rather than the default Cantonese track, which just seems WRONG somehow.

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 02/03/2002

Any review of Legend Of The Mountain is bound to include the phrase "It's not as good as A TOUCH OF ZEN". Since this true of almost any movie ever made, it seems unfair to hold this against Legend... just because it's by the same director. So instead, let us say "Legend Of The Mountain is a damn sight better than most other movies".

The movie starts of in a way reminiscent of A Chinese Ghost Story, with a young scholar walking through lucious mountain terrain, where one of the first characters he encounters is a young lady playing a flute... who mysteriously disappears when approached. It plays out quite differently though. The scholar has been sent by his sifu to the fortress of a general, where he should be able to find a quiet place to translate a powerful sutra. Very much so, in fact, as the place appears to be very nearly deserted. He learns that most of the people stationed there were killed in a recent battle, and most of the rest were evacuated. He settles in the fortress to work anyway, but it quickly becomes apparent that things are not quite right around here. Supernatural forces are at work, and seem to have an unhealthy interest in his sutra.

The movie is nicely paced... it all plays out quite slowly for the most part, with strange happenings and behaviors cropping up. You know that something is going on in the fortress, but you're not quite sure what. The characters are good, and the cinematography even better... it creates a very effective mood. Events gradually build until they reach bursting point, and the scholar finds himself caught up in a battle between supernatural forces. (Note - this battle is entirely conducted with an assortment of musical instruments and coloured smoke, and hence not quite as dramatic as other supernatural battles such as Zu Warriors, but I found the atmosphere was well maintained regardless. I was actually quite scared ).

King Hu definitely had a better eye for locations, camera shots and actors performances than most of his contemporaries, and LOTM definitely stands out from the crowd. It's just not quite as good as A Touch Of Zen. (Doh!)

The Winson DVD is not a great DVD, but it's probably the best release from them that I've seen so far. The print has a lot of scratches and wear in places, but that was to be expected really. However, it's in a good widescreen ratio, has a good sound mix (Mandarin 2.0 that is - not the default Cantonese 5.1!) and very well translated subtitles - all of which is much more than I expected to see! An unusual company to put out a King Hu movie on DVD, but I'm glad they did - I think the world is certainly much better for it, and I hope to see more coming soon

Reviewed by: danton
Date: 01/11/2002

Aside from his last two movies, which were produced in HK during his failed comeback attempt (Swordsman 1, and Painted Skin) I've seen only two movies of this legendary Taiwanese director, the seminal A Touch of Zen, and this movie, which was shot back to back with the companion piece Raining in the Mountain, and was finally released in 1979. Most reviewers consider LotM to be one of his weaker offerings, but lacking the comparison to his other films, I will try to review it on its own merits.

The film unfolds like a traditional Chinese ghost story: A young scholar (played by the not so young actor who was the scholar in Touch of Zen) is asked by a monk to copy a mysterious sutra which when finished has power over the dead, and he sets out to complete his task by travelling to a remote fortress where he believes he will be able to work in peace and quiet.

At the old fortress, he meets several characters, including a young girl (played by Hsu Feng, the heroine in many of Hu's films, including ToZ) who seduces him. However, ominous signs and portents all around (including the appearance of an enigmatic lama) seem to hint at imminent danger, and soon the scholar finds himself battling ghosts who are after the sutra.

All of the above unfolds over the course of two hours at a very slow pace, and in typical Hu style: There are lots of stunningly gorgeous nature shots (the film was shot in the mountains of South Korea, I think), and long sequences without dialog where Hu tells the story through images instead. Unlike ToZ, this is not a build-up to climactic fight sequences, however. There's no fighting in this movie (perhaps one reason this film seems to be regarded less?), and only one action setpiece towards the end that has a little bit of the typical trampoline shots, as well as some colored smoke and lighting effects.

The film works best in its attempts to create a haunting atmosphere, and does so very nicely, supported by lovingly composed and framed camera shots, as well as a traditional musical score. Compared to King Hu's work, so much of HK's movie output seems sloppy by comparison. LotM looks beautiful, and succeeds in creating some truly stunning moments. Unfortunately, the film is also let down by some weak acting. With the plot offering so little suspense due to its familiarity, it falls to the actors to hold the viewer's interest, and it is here that the film shows some weakness: the scholar simply doesn't have the screen presence to carry this movie, and Hsu Feng seems miscast as well. As an actress, she appears to have a somewhat limited range; she is good at portraying stoic, almost silent, intense characters, and while her intensity works well in some later scenes, she fails to convince in some of the earlier scenes when her character is meant to be perceived as an innocent girl who seduces the scholar. I was surprised, however, by the fact that Hu actually shows the sexual attraction between the two! It is too bad he does so in a half-hearted, timid fashion, though, immediately pulling back and once again cutting to nature shots to signal what is happening here. I'm not asking for a gratuitous sex scene, but the film could have benefitted here from some of the eroticism Tsui Hark created in movies like Green Snake.

The standout in the movie is a very young and charming Sylvia Chang. The scenes with her are among the best in the movie. And btw, until now I never noticed her striking resemblance to Shu Qi... (or was I imagining that?)

The story drags a little on occasion, and the resolution left me somewhat wanting, but overall I still found this a very worthwhile and pleasurable viewing experience, aided by Winson's decent presentation of this long unavailable film. The DVD is probably the best we can hope for with respect to watching a King Hu movie, given the state of film preservation in HK. The film is presented in the original aspect ratio, and the picture quality is acceptable. Some faded colors, lots of speckles in some scenes, but overall, it's not bad. The subtitles are optional (i.e. very readable) and well timed (unlike some other recent Winson discs), and the sound mix is good. I watched the movie with the Mandarin DD 5.1 remix (there's also a DD2.0 remix, as well as a Cantonese dub).

Let's hope this is the first of many King Hu rereleases...