Legend of the Mountain is King Hu doing a ghost story. Not in the sense of a work of cover-to-cover overt horror, but more in the sense of a general vibe of dread, but never quite getting a heavy level of spookiness beyond a few moments.
The film follows Ho (Shih Chun – who we previously saw in A Touch of Zen), a scholar who, after having failed his exams, has been working as a copyist. After being hired by a Buddhist monastery to transcribe some sutras with the power to put the dead to rest, he heads (at the recommendation of one of the monks) to North Fort for the purposes of finding a quiet place to complete the work. However, he ends up finding himself caught in the middle of a conflict between ghosts and demons, all of whom desperately want that sutra.
Like A Touch of Zen, Legend of the Mountain is a very slow burn. At 3 hours, it takes almost an hour to reach the North Fort (with some hints along the way that maybe Ho doesn’t want to go there, with some weird occurrences along the way). The supernatural elements then don’t kick into really high gear until the final hour or so of the film. That said, it doesn’t mean that nothing happens in the film either.
Over the course of the movie, Ho ends up falling in with Melody (Hsu Feng), and ultimately ends up married, but in circumstances that feel just off enough to make you suspicious, but suspicious in a way where you don’t necessarily take the perspective that there’s something overtly supernatural – yet.
As with the other films of King Hu’s Taiwanese period I’ve reviewed thus far, the movie has very striking visuals, though for this film Hu moved shooting from Taiwan to Korea. I do wonder how much of the castle environments in the film were built for shooting, or how much were just buildings had been built during one of the various Chinese invasions of the Korean peninsula in the past, and had been left after the Chinese were driven out at one point or another.
In any case, the film maintains Hu’s excellent use of landscape photography to build the environment of a setting and giving a story a larger scope. In particular, Hu also uses some wildlife photography for the sake of building the narrative, including some pretty overtly symbolic shots (Hu cutting to a spider trapping another spider as Melody cons Ho, for example).There is a shorter way to tell a story like this. While Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story doesn’t have the plot elements of trying to transcribe a Buddhist sutra, it comes from the same common source material (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio), and works a much brisker pace. That said, speeding up the pace of this story probably would make it less of a King Hu film.
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