Legend of the Mountain [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th March 2018).
The Film

Golden Horse Award (Best Director): King Hu (winner), (Best Cinematography): Henry Chan (winner), (Best Art Direction): King Hu (winner), (Best Film Score): Ta Chiang Wu (winner), (Best Sound Recording): Shao Lung Chou (winner), (Best Leading Actor): Chun Shih (nominated), (Best Leading Actress): Feng Hsu (nominated), (Best Film Editing): Nan Hsiao (nominated), and (Best Feature Film): Legend of the Mountain (nominated) - Golden Horse Film Festival, 1979

Having failed the Imperial Civil Service Exam – an exam some men prepared for well into old age – scholar Ho Qingyun (The Assassin's Chun Shih) is unable to find work as anything other than a copyist. When he is summoned to the Ocean Mudra Temple to copy the newly-translated Great Mudra Sutra for a ritual to release the lost souls of those killed in battle at the frontier. The Lama Huiming (Enter the Dragon's Ming-Tsai Wu) has arranged for a quiet place in which Ho can work at the mansion of General Han (City on Fire's Yueh Sun) with a letter of introduction to his advisor Tsui Hung Chih (The Oily Maniac's Lin Tung). Traveling on foot over the course of several days, he arrives at the North Fort which he discovers deserted but for the presence of the deranged servant Chang (A Better Tomorrow's Feng Tien) who attacks him before being called off by his host Tsui. He learns from Tsui that the imperial court army was massacred by the Xixia and that a treaty was signed making the fort and the surrounding countryside an unoccupied no man's land, and that General Han perished in battle. While the general's mansion will offer peace and quiet, Tsui advises Ho that he should conceal his purpose for being there since the Great Mudra Sutra can enable its owner to "navigate the realms of life and death" and should not fall into the hands of evil sorcerers or demons that might harass him. The general's domineering old housekeeper Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu) easily overwhelms both Ho and Tsui, coercing Ho into tutoring her child in exchange for doing his laundry and cooking his meals. Ho is shocked to discover that Madame Wang's child is the fully grown Melody (Farewell My Concubine's Feng Hsu) whose performance on drum as entertainment has a bewitching effect on him. Waking up the next morning with a hangover, he discovers that he has shared his bed with Melody but has no memory of proposing to her in front of Tsui and Madame Wang. Although he tries to dissuade Madame Wang from believing him a suitable husband, she brushes aside his concerns that he is not a rich man by revealing that he will be Melody's second husband and that she has enough of a dowry to support him in his scholarly exploits for the rest of his life. The whirlwind romance leads rapidly to marriage and the bliss of the marital bed. The honeymoon phase of their marriage distracts Ho from his work on the sutra; and for good reason as it turns out that demon Melody and her ghostly servants Madame Wang and maid Qing have been conspiring together to get their hands on the sutra. Their efforts are thwarted by the protective properties of the prayer beads given to Ho with the sutra as well as the intervention of Lama Huiming who has trained with local Taoist priest Yang (Fearless Hyena's Hui Lou Chen) who was responsible for Melody's transformation from a restless spirit to a demon who has become too powerful for even him to control. While drinking together at a local restaurant, angry drunk Tsui rants to Ho that his wife is evil; but Ho only comes to realize the true nature of Melody's evil and mastery of black magic when she discovers that he has been in the company of the restaurant waitress Cloud (Twin Dragons' Sylvia Chang) with whom she has an age old score to settle.
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Loosely based on a short story by Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling – whose works also inspired the similar A Chinese Ghost Story and The Enchanting Shadow (along with its Shaw Brothers remake The Enchanting Ghost) – Legend of the Mountain is an epic-length supernatural fantasy that is conversely intimate in scope and plot. Under the guiding hand of art director turned actor turned filmmaker King Hu (A Touch of Zen) – who directed, co-edited (with The Dragon Kid's Nan Hsiao), scripted, and designed the costumes – the film favors atmosphere and a feeling of languor into which the protagonist is lured, and slowly builds up to the more fantastical elements. Throughout the first act of the film, the lurking Lama is just as sinister as Melody and her cohorts who just as likely be greedy humans or ghosts seeking the sutra for their own release rather than evil deeds; and Hu bravely leaves it to the audience to sort out the character relationships and motivations while also disarming viewers with his deployment of genre elements only to overturn expectations. There are charming effects, including the juxtapositions of shots nature and static artistic representations, a cut from a school of undulating koi in a lotus pond to the grid of a gameboard, and then cutting back and forth between mating insects and the marital bed of Ho and Melody which "climaxes" with shots of a spider in a web devouring her prey as well as her mate. Much of the special effects are achieved in camera and with the aid of colored smoke, and Hu utilizes sound and editing in place of opticals to make the musical magic duels suspenseful. The film's only connection to the wuxia genre is a little wire work that anticipates the later "wire fu" of Tsui Hark that is here overtly supernatural rather than merely fantastic. Despite the length of the film, characterization is fairly basic, leaving the delineation between the goodness and wickness of the Ho's two love interests to Chang's sweetness and Hsu's furtive gestures and expressions. The middle of the film feels the most drawn-out with a lot of walking around from place to place with only the stroll taken by Ho and Cloud serving dramatic purpose, while only the lengthiest of the four flashbacks during the last hour actually reveals more than the dialogue that bridges them. Fortunately, the climax drums up some excitement with a few gratuitous scares before the pyrotechnics. While the original director's cut ran 192 minutes, the version that went into release ran only 110 minutes, and an assessment of both suggests that a better version would reside somewhere in between.

Video

Long available in a cut running just 110 minutes – as represented on Winsom's Hong Kong non-anamorphic DVD (distributed stateside by Tai Seng) – Legend of the Mountain comes to 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray from a new 2016 4K restoration of the original cut of the film (192:15) which was discovered by happy accident a decade ago when the title was requested for a King Hu film festival and the Taiwanese film library to which he bequeathed his materials unknowingly sent out the original cut. The original camera negative had been edited to the shorter cut and was in bad condition, requiring it and the negative trims of the missing scenes to be digitized and digitally clean utilizing video sources as grading references. Colors are vibrant if a tad faded, from the greens of nature to the variegated yellows and oranges of the sunsets, as well as some primaries in the costumes and colored smoke, but blacks are a bit variable and sharpness is impeded by the heaviest use of zoom lens this side of a Jess Franco film. The disc is Region B-locked, and Region A-locked viewers who do not plan on going region free anytime soon are advised to wait until May for Kino Lorber's edition.
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Audio

The sole audio track is a Chinese LPCM 1.0 mono track that boasts clear dialogue and effects while the high end of the score and some music played within the film can seem a little harsh, although this may be down to the limitations of the original recording. Optional English subtitles are free of errors.
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Extras

Extras start off with the David Cairns video essay "Screen Legend: The Magic of King Hu" (21:18) who discusses Hu's early career, his success with A Touch of Zen, the length of which may have inspired Hu to be more as indulgent with Legend of the Mountain as the latter was originally three hours and cut into two parts before being pieced back together for a successful Cannes showing and Western distribution. Cairns posits the film as Hu's only true attempt at a ghost story and points out various borrowings from the literary Dracula, the Hammer adaptation, Nosferatu, The Innocents, and even compares Tien's deranged servant to Alfie Bass' Yiddish vampire (rather than Terry Downes' hunchbacked Koukol) in Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers. He also notes the edits made to the 110 minute version and how they damage the final section. In "Tony Rayns on Legend of the Mountain" (21:22), Rayns discusses Hu's leaving the Shaw Brothers and forming an independent company with financing from Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest, producing two back-to-back pictures (one of which would be owned by Golden Harvest and the other by Hu). With Legend of the Mountain, Hu took advantage of South Korea's subsidies for foreign filmmakers that stipulated the production of at least two pictures (leading to the second production Raining in the Mountain featuring many of the same faces and locations). Although Hu is credited with the screenplay, it was actually written by his wife Chung Ling, an American academic who had already published some works on Chinese literature. A friend of Hu's, Rayns recalls first seeing the 110 minute version with terrible anachronistic English subtitles and attempting in vain to re-edit that version to remove the worst of the subtitles (rather than paying to have a new print struck with new optically overlayed subtitles) before giving up, and providing details on the renewed discovery of the original 192 minute version. In discussing the longer version, he reveals that Hu himself had some concerns about the length of some of the sequences only to be advised by Satyajit Ray (The Music Room) to leave them in. The disc also includes a still gallery and the film's theatrical trailer (1:47) with a Kino Lorber Repertory logo at the head. Included in the case is a thirty-one page collector’s booklet featuring an abundance of archival writing and imagery including some quoted statements from Hu – including one for the 1979 London Film Festival quoted in the Rayns featurette – a piece by Chung Ling on the film, an appreciation by critic Glenn Kenny. A limited o-card is included with the first print run of two thousand copies.
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Overall

Under the guiding hand of director/writer/editor/costume designer King Hu, Legend of the Mountain is an epic-length supernatural fantasy that is conversely intimate in scope and plot.
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