Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Legend of the Mountain (Shan zhong zhuan qi)

Director King Hu

The director with Sylvia Chang

Sylvia Chang













LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN (Shan zhong zhuan qi)         B                                               Hong Kong  Taiwan  South Korea  (192 mi)  1979 ‘Scope d:  King Hu

Legend of the Mountain is the love story of a human and a ghost.  It’s a Song Dynasty short story.  It tells about a struggle that occurs in the ghostly realm, in another world.  The ghosts’ main objective is to be reincarnated as a human.  But being a ghost has its convenient aspects – for example, you can work magic!   It’s strange; why do they always want to become human?  Humans are born to suffer.  You could say this raises a question.  The movie was more than three hours long in its original version.  The film critic Derek Elley watched a videotape of the film and decided that it should be shown at both the London and the Edinburgh film festivals.  Later on, when I told him that I might shorten it, they wrote me a long letter saying I mustn’t cut it.  As for the full version of Legend of the Mountain being shown at the London Film Festival, let’s ignore whether the reviews were good or bad; at least they got to see the whole leopard and not just the spots!                                                                                             —King Hu, 1979

Conjured up from the same ghost stories in Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio that inspired A Touch of Zen (Xia nü) (1971), specifically one story entitled A Cave Full of Ghosts in the West Mountain, this film was shot back to back with Raining in the Mountain (Kong shan ling yu) (1979), released the same year, taking advantage of the mountainous location shots in South Korea, it also recycles many of the same actors used in the previous film, shot once again by Henry Chan, where the art direction and Scope cinematography is utterly spectacular, yet the eerie nature of the supernatural mysticism in this film is in the realm of Mizoguchi’s ghost story Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) (1953), eventually leading to Tsui Hark’s more fancifully produced trilogy beginning with A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987).  This film has always suffered in comparison to its companion film, largely because it usually appears in its truncated 105-minute version, yet to immerse yourself in the full-length version is an unforgettable experience that brings to mind Terrence Malick’s enthralling 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life, yet made thirty years earlier with a completely different philosophical structure and design.  Hu brought a literary depth to martial arts films that elevated the genre to an art form, particularly his unique blend of Chinese history and legend, politics and martial arts, philosophy and religion.  Besides his love of Peking opera, which may have inspired those acrobatic wuxia leaps and jumps, Hu’s films also display a heterogeneous array of traditional forms ranging from history and legend to literature and painting.  Hu’s affection for culture is expressed in his character’s familiarity with history, operas, short stories, and novels, yet what stands out in this film is the stunning, painterly design of every shot (Hu’s mother was a painter), including an astonishing array of nature shots, something he shares with American director Terrence Malick, yet Hu’s overriding concern was combining the natural and the supernatural into the same universe, placing this phantasmagoric ghost tale within the immense open-air beauty of the surrounding natural world, with birds and animals frolicking or dragonflies breeding, accentuating the mountains, trees, rivers, lily ponds, and waterfalls along with a golden setting sun, including shots through tree branches or fruit blossoms, as if paying tribute to the natural images of Chinese poetry, yet the reflective blend of myth and history is what makes this a King Hu film.  Two years earlier in 1977, King Hu married a Chinese writer and scholar named Chung Ling, who had written extensively about Chinese literature and had been teaching the subject for several years at the State University of New York in Albany, giving up her academic career to work with her husband, writing the screenplay for this film before resuming her teaching career in Hong Kong in 1982.  Co-written, directed, produced, and co-edited by Hu who also provided the art direction, production and costume design, this film represents the evolution of the wuxia film where action has largely been replaced by contemplative reflection, recalling a time when many religious traditions had co-mingled in China for centuries and shaped Chinese life for more than two thousand years, blending together different elements of Taoism, a system of belief attributed to the philosophy of Lao Tzu, a 6th-century BC contemporary of Confucius that teaches how to accept the natural order of things and live in harmony with the universe, and Buddhism, which believes human life is one of suffering that paves your way into the next life, ruled by the forces of reincarnation and karma, offering a path of meditative practice and spiritual development leading to insight into the true nature of reality, with the goal of attaining nirvana, or spiritual enlightenment.  By bringing all of these elements together, Hu accentuates the transcendental interconnectedness of things, even the things that seem to sidetrack us from seeking our desired goals and destinations.    

Set in the Song dynasty in the 11th century, where a scholar, Ho Qingyun (Shih Chun), embodies the more practical, rationalistic traditions of Confucianism, which is more an ethical philosophy rather than a religion, having failed the imperial exam, becoming an ardent calligraphy expert and copy artist, summoned by a Superior Monk (Chen Hui-Lou) from the Ocean Mudra Temple set in the mist-shrouded Gaya Mountains asking him to copy a Buddhist Mudra Sutra that releases the souls of the dead, to be used for a ceremony honoring deceased soldiers, which presumably will bring nirvana to legions of dead soldiers whose casualties resulted from the ongoing warfare of the Song-Xia wars.  Dispatched to a faraway fort where he’ll presumably have the peace and tranquility needed for his time-consuming task (though what’s more peacefully serene than a remote Buddhist temple in the mountains?), Ho wordlessly sets off on yet another long-distanced journey on foot, with prayer beads given to him by a monk to ward off any demons he might encounter along the way, yet his journey is defined by an overwhelming visual splendor, seeing a mysterious spirit in the woods playing a flute, only to disappear and reappear somewhere else, occasionally asking for directions, before finally arriving at the fort, discovering it is abandoned except for Mr. Tsui (Tung Lin), an advisor to the deceased general Han (Sun Yueh), informing him that the general and most of the soldiers were wiped out in battle.  No sooner does he arrive that he is literally swarmed by a host of characters, including a muted, seemingly deranged Old Chang (Tien Feng), Madame Wang (Rainbow Hsu), an extremely bossy, man-like woman who immediately orders him around, pushing in front of him her beautiful daughter Melody (Hsu Feng).  At a welcoming dinner, Ho is plied with wine while Melody furiously plays the drums, as if casting an intoxicating spell on the man until he passes out, only to awaken the next morning, though it could just as easily have been days, having completely forgotten everything that happened the night before, yet Melody has apparently spent the night, claiming he had his way with her, whispering sweet nothings in her ear while promising to take care of her.  Basically tricked into marrying her, this whirlwind of change ushers in a thoroughly altered mood, where something strangely mysterious is going on even before Ho has transcribed a single word, as a golden-dressed Lama (Wu Ming-Tsai, aka Ng Ming-choi, who also provided the martial arts choreography) and a Taoist priest Yang (Chen Hui-lou) are seen lurking in the background, moving back and forth outside in the distance while sneaking in and out of the fort interior looking for the prayer beads, exhibiting much of the same secret behavior from the previous film with vying parties searching for a priceless ancient scroll, where it’s even the same actors reprising their roles in a different capacity.  What’s clear to viewers is what’s being hidden from Ho, as behind the scenes they are casting various spells on one another, creating spiritual battles through musical instruments, with Melody’s power expressed through her drumming while the Lama counters with a tambourine drum, while also using clashing cymbals, with the Taoist priest also referred to as Reverend and Master.  This magical interplay between the dark arts is a fierce and furious sport, yet it soon becomes apparent that they all want to get their hands on the sutra once it’s finally finished, each having their own secret motives while placing pressure on Ho into hastily completing his copying.  Whatever peace and serenity Ho might have been seeking, he certainly doesn’t find it here, as he’s surrounded by apparitions vying for absolute control of the mystical world.     

Mr. Tsui takes Ho into town to buy some needed supplies, but gets sidetracked by a tavern run by Madame Chuang (Jeon Sook) and her lovely daughter Cloud (Taiwanese film legend Sylvia Chang), with the Taoist priest Yang living nearby, initially causing some consternation, but Ho and Cloud go walking together in search of needed herbs, becoming a heavily romanticized journey through the splendor of nature, with Ho realizing she is the spirit he saw playing the flute earlier, capable of appearing and disappearing, with the two immediately sensing some connection.  But it’s Mr. Tsui’s drunken comments that cause alarm, blurting out that Ho’s wife is a demon, that she only wants to get her hands on the sutra before enslaving him, much like she has done to Old Chang, who was once a proud warrior protecting the fort.  It’s here that Ho realizes he’s surrounded not by people but by spirits, devilishly motivated souls who are hell-bent on being helped into the next stage of their existence.  Music is a much more important aspect of this film, written by Wu Ta-chiang, featuring a prominent use of the flute, where there’s even a recurring love theme, as it’s apparent Ho and Cloud have a love connection, yet since she’s not human, only in spirit can they actually flourish.  When he returns home, Melody flies off into a jealous rage, using her demonic powers to immobilize his legs, leaving him unable to move until Cloud rescues him, with Melody going toe-to-toe with the Lama and the Taoist priest who served as her Master, both fighting back, yet ultimately Ho has to face the woman he married in a no holds barred battle for survival pitting the living against the dead.  More than the other Hu films where he appears, the actor Shih Chun is challenged by lengthy, wordless sequences, where he has to do more with his face to convey the layers of bewilderment and confusion that he continually experiences.  The length of the film allows for plenty of detours in the narrative thread, which is slim at best, feeling overlong and repetitive, where the interactions between characters often grow tedious, with characters that are not as richly developed as earlier films (but that may be because they’re not among the living, guided purely by instinctual desires), but it does allow the director to experiment with duration, elongating the dreamlike fantasies with their ability to both stretch and compress time, resorting to flashback sequences that help explain what happened, as Melody was an apparent favorite of General Han during his time at the fort, yet grew enamored at hearing Cloud play the flute, sparking the jealous rage of Melody, who becomes a serial murderer, killing not just Cloud but her own mother and assistant as well, tried for her crimes at the General’s court, then ordered into exile to die alone.  Yet her wandering spirit remains restless, seeking to settle her scores, inadvertently granted extreme powers from a misguided Taoist priest, enslaving the souls of Madame Wang and her assistant in her attempt to steal the sutra, with hopes of resurrecting herself back into the world of humans.  Hu brilliantly uses the priest’s prayer shrine, which has a black screen, like a movie screen, allowing his subject as well as viewers to simultaneously watch events unfold from her past life, generating startling revelations, featuring a multitude of shifting allegiances, murky motivations, betrayals, and romances, all inter-connected, evolving into a unique cinematic aesthetic where hypnotic imagery is met with hallucinations and the sublime.  As a distinctly Chinese ghost story, it’s not very surprising, exhibiting little suspense or dramatic tension (the complete opposite of his earlier wuxia classics), as the protagonist Ho is not quick to figure things out, yet the glorious otherworldly fantasia on display is visually extravagant, with fighting encounters in the forest, where religious and demonic forces battle it out with each other, with Cloud and Melody acrobatically leaping high up into tree branches before descending on each other, like dive bombs from above.  Equal parts fairy tale and nightmare, utterly strange and compelling, it’s the gentle sounds of Cloud’s flute that personalizes much of the musical soundtrack, like a musical leitmotif, where her pervasive spirit overrides much of what we see, receding deep into the internal recesses of our imaginations. 

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