Review: Beat the Devil—King Hu's "Legend of the Mountain"

The great director’s haunting masterpiece gets a new release, restored to its full-length.
Sean Gilman

Legend of the Mountain

It begins with a Wagnerian incantation: elemental imagery calling forth the natural world. Brassy, discordant horns rising with the sun, the mountain, the clouds and the river, a lake, an ocean, always water, rushing, falling, churning. A lone figure appears, dwarfed by the crashing sea, a pinprick of consciousness in a beautifully indifferent nature. The man is a scholar, an itinerant copyist, a voice from nowhere explains, on a mission to copy an ancient sutra, magical words with the power to control the spirits of the dead. He’s played by Shih Chun, the heroic swordsman of Dragon Gate Inn (1967), and his role here is much like his one in A Touch of Zen (1971): a clever man who finds himself well out of his spiritual depth. That scholar though had a home, dilapidated though it was, and a mother, henpecking as she was, and, eventually, a child. This man has no roots, no past. His enemies, and they are all around him, have no future: they’re already dead. 

Legend of the Mountain was one of two movies King Hu made in Korea, both released in 1979. The other, Raining in the Mountain, is a heist film set in a massive Buddhist monastery, with various factions scheming to steal a sutra written by Tripitaka himself (the real-life monk who went West in Journey to the West), while the monks maneuver themselves to replace the aging abbot. Being a Buddhist heist film, of course the conclusion is that the MacGuffin itself has no value at all (the sutra’s value comes from its meaning, not the paper it was written on nor the hand that wrote it), but the sutra in Legend of the Mountain is very powerful indeed, and the film hearkens back to a much more ancient Taoist and pre-Taoist tradition. Raining is a film of words, of argument, a materialist film packed with action and suspense sequences and a maze-like set that commands most every scene, the monastery a multi-leveled warren of doors and windows, hidden alleys and sloping roofs. Legend takes place in the open air, and scenes of wild, depopulated nature dominate. It’s a world of music and images, words are incidental and fall away all together at its key moments. But for a brief stop at the monastery (the same one in both films) where Shih Chun gets his orders and learns some spells that will protect him from demons (hand gestures wordlessly taught by the same abbot from Raining), the entire first half hour of this three hour-plus movie consists of nature and music and Shih Chun walking.

Three hours, that is, in the newly restored cut of the film that is now rolling out to theatres across the country. The first several times I saw Legend of the Mountain, it was in a 100 minute version, but this longer cut, which played at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2011 (and was reviewed here at the Notebook) has now, thanks to the Taiwan Film Institute and funding by actress Hsu Feng, been given the deluxe treatment recently also accorded to Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen. The plot remains the same in both versions of the film, the long version giving even more space to the nature montages, shot by Henry Chan and scored by Wu Ta-chiang. Most of the changes come towards the end, in the revealed backstory of the ghosts Shih Chun meets as he tries to get the sutra copied. 

After meeting with the monks, Shih walks a very long way to an isolated and abandoned fort, an empty space in a demilitarized zone between two warring states. There he meets a Mr. Tsui, the advisor to the former general in charge of the fort, an aged housekeeper, and her daughter, played by Hsu Feng. Prowling about the margins of the estate is a deranged mute, a grotesque in rags played by Hu regular Tien Feng. Tsui and the ladies set Shih up in a decent room and ply him with food and drink. One night, under the spell of wine and the hypnotic drumming of the beautiful young woman, Shih apparently sleeps with the girl, leading to their marriage. At least, he thinks they sleep together: what we see instead is another nature montage, but this time the rivers and trees are joined by insects doing what comes naturally, a metaphor as subtle and hilarious as the train entering the tunnel in North by Northwest

The happy couple’s domestic bliss is soon shattered, however, by the appearance of a mysterious lama, who reveals what we’ve suspected all along: Hsu Feng and her mother are in fact ghosts, only after the sutra. They can’t just grab it because it has to be copied first, and the prayer beads that go along with it give demons a nasty shock, like the Wicked Witch trying to snatch Dorothy’s slippers. The lama tries to defeat Hsu, but her magic (powered by her drumming) is too powerful, and he keeps having to retreat and attempt to learn new skills (from an even more mysterious Taoist who was once Hsu’s teacher). The magical effects here are a marvel of low-budget ingenuity, a matter of soundtrack and rhythmic cutting, with an occasional trampoline-aided leap and musical instruments which, when thrown, burst into explosions of colored smoke.   Tsui eventually gets Shih out of the house and down the mountain to an inn run by Sylvia Chang and her mother. But the ghosts aren’t far behind. 

This is where the two versions begin to differ greatly. In the shorter film, the ghosts don’t have any backstory and have no apparent relation to each other. The movie is an exciting blend of horror, comedy and action, of the kind that the Hong Kong New Wave was exploring at the time (Tsui Hark’s The Butterfly Murders, Ann Hui’s The Spooky Bunch, Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind) and that Tsui would eventually meld with Evil Dead-style special effects in 1987’s A Chinese Ghost Story. That film was based on the same story from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio as Li Han-hsiang’s 1960 huangmei musical The Enchanting Shadow, on which King Hu served as assistant director. Hu adapted two other stories from that famous Qing-era collection into films, 1993’s Painted Skin and his masterpiece, 1971’s A Touch of Zen (which takes the story “The Magnanimous Girl” as its starting point but then moves in entirely unexpected directions). Legend of the Mountain is an original work, but one very much within this zhiguai genre, stories of the strange and unusual rooted in Chinese religion and folk tales. These are less horror films in the Western sense of stories designed to scare or shock the audience, but rather more eerie expressions of a numinous world, cutting to the heart of the mysteries at the center of existence that give rise to religious belief. The short version, in cutting out details of the spirits’ past lives and interrelations, can only hint at what this all means.

Unfolding over the last third of the long version are a series of flashbacks which explain what exactly happened to each of the spirits when they were alive. Hsu Feng is forced by the lama’s magic to confront her past, which she sees play out on a black screen, projected like a movie. She was the favored concubine of the local general, and is revealed to have killed all the other characters, either through magic or, in the case of Sylvia Chang, a new, rival concubine, by pushing her off a bridge. Still, all these souls are trapped in her orbit, bound by some force (or simply trapped in-between worlds) to serve her. All the other ghosts are afraid of her, and she’s only grown more powerful since her death. Thus are they doomed, even after death, to relive the horrors of their existence. The trauma of their past prevents their future (there’s no hint of reincarnation, as in Chinese vampire movies: all that seems to await them is nothingness). Only Shih Chun, the wanderer who has no past, can set them free. There’s an idea here older than the doctrines of Buddhism, or the past-life-to-future-life causality of karma, that of both the absolute horror of human existence and of its ultimate meaninglessness in the scheme of nature. All the ghosts, good or bad, murderer or victim, the ones trying to exploit Shih and the ones trying to protect him, are, after all, ghosts, ephemeral beings in a liminal state between life and nothingness. Hsu’s goal is power, the drive to continue existing. The rest crave obliteration. 

The final shot is a repeat of the opening: Shih alone on a rock, waves crashing all around him. It could be that the opening shot was a flash-forward, but what if it wasn’t? What if the story is cyclical, that after all his trials, Shih simply winds up back at the beginning, doomed to repeat his quest again and again? Then, a man is sent into the wilderness armed only with words, a scripture. There he encounters many demons, some ugly, some beautiful, some malevolent, some innocent. In the end, his words make them all disappear. His world empty of spirits, the man is alone in nature. Back he goes again, repeating his journey. Can he save the good spirits while removing the evil ones? Of course not: either the world is magic or it isn’t, either there is both good and evil or there is nothingness. We want the man to be a hero, to live in a magical world, to save the good and defeat the bad. It’s impossible. But he keeps trying.

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