King Hu/ Taiwan/ 1979/ 191 mins
Available on dual-format Blu-ray/ DVD Mon 19 Mar 2018
Recently afforded a theatrical release Stateside for the first time, Legend of the Mountain is a mystical story of magic that runs at a marathon length, but could easily have told its story over a quick sprint.
Based on a folk tale from the 11th century, the film sees a poor, itinerant scholar – the pleasant but gormless Ho (Shih Chun) – travel to an isolated outpost where he’s been employed to copy a Buddhist sutra that can free souls trapped in limbo. On arrival he meets a cast of curious characters that aren’t necessarily of this world.
Hu is perhaps better known to a Western audiences for his influential Wuxia martial arts films Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen, the latter running a similar length to this director’s cut. Instead of the celebrated balletic fighting of those films, here we have the slight narrative threads of a traditional ghost tale stretched to breaking point. The original cut of Legend of the Mountain was just shy of two hours. This new version includes frequent, indulgent shots of the admittedly beautiful South Korean countryside where this was filmed, and some backstory for the antagonistic phantoms that torment our blandly accommodating hero.
Perhaps some knowledge of the rudiments of Buddhist teachings would assist in one’s enjoyment, as for all its undoubted elegance, it’s something of a slog, although the film has many champions. A certain type of cineaste will undoubtedly appreciate the languid pace and bask in the opulence of the visuals. There is also the entertainment provided by the numerous drum battles that form much of the drama. Most of these involve the alluring demon Melody (Hsu Feng) face off against a flamboyant lama (Ng Ming Tsui), accompanied by thick swathes of vibrantly-coloured smoke and the deadliest percussion this side of Spinal Tap.
While the pace picks up slightly once the pummeling begins – and there’s a breed of musician who’ll cling resolutely to the high-art status of a good drum solo, contrary to most tastes – Legend of the Mountain never truly reels in the attention that wavered through its early meanderings. This isn’t helped by a witless, dull cipher of a leading man, who bumbles his way through proceedings like a drunkard lurching through traffic. There is invention and craftsmanship that shows through the limited budget – Hu isn’t widely admired for nothing – and the folklore depicted seems wildly eccentric compared to our more familiar tales, but there simply isn’t enough here to justify the extreme length.