If you were wondering what the best re-release of 2017 would be, then look no further. Eureka’s Blu-ray release of King Hu’s epic Wuxai film Legend of the Mountain is, simply put, stunning. Made after Hu's classic Wuxia films Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn, Legend of the Mountain merges elements of folklore, Zen Buddhist philosophy, romance, and the supernatural for a unique cinematic experience.
The film follows Hu (Shih Jun) a young scholar tasked by Buddhist monks to copy out a recently translated Sutra, a document said to hold power over the spirits of the dead. Travelling to an isolated monastery, in order to work in peace, Hu encounters a host of strange characters and becomes embroiled in a desperate spiritual feud over control of the Sutra.
From its opening shots, Legend of the Mountain is a breath-taking feat. Gorgeous natural locations topped with sumptuous skies, rainbows, and ethereal mists, lure us in. The wide-open spiritual interiors of a Buddhist temple are inadvertently paralleled with the grand isolation of natural spaces. Shots play with the boundaries between sanctified interiors and the unknown outside. In basic terms, Hu delivers a viewing experience every bit as spiritual as his story.
Usually operating within the Wuxia category of Chinese martial arts epics, Hu shifts his focus from finely tuned physical combat to more spiritual representations. Legend of the Mountain doesn’t quite ditch Wuxia, instead, swapping those break-neck fight sequences with studied spiritual sorcery. It’s a film never more comfortable than when it’s trying fresh ways of articulating the unfathomable nature of the spirit world.
Spiritual warfare here is a far cry from the dingy world of '80s black magic films. Fights come as percussion-based will-contests, with characters using drums to repel each other or induce a violent reaction. It's an exorcism fantasy, fused with the kinetic energy of Hu's early work with the Shaw brothers, though definitely more masterfully done. Garish plumes of colourful smoke represent different characters during battle whilst symbolic transfiguration supplies a steady stream of beautiful wtf moments. The result is a surprising series of visually unique "fight" scenes, more indebted to fantasy than action. This is true for Legend of the Mountain as a whole; it feels like an epic bedtime story, an old fable captured succinctly on celluloid.
For some people expecting sheer action, the focus on thematic symbolism and more abstract elements could be a big turn off. But it doesn’t take long to settle in with Hu’s dream logic or the entrancing quality of his adventure. Above all else, this is an adventure: epic, romantic, exciting, melodramatic, farcical, it’s such a wide array of things that it’s tough to pin down.
Stunning locations and masterful filming combine to form a dream you’ll have a tough time walking away from. Don’t let the runtime scare you off, Legend of the Mountain is an unsung classic from a master at the height of his talents. Cinema in its purest form.
LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN (1979) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: KING HU / CHUN SHIH, FENG HSU, SYLVIA CHANG / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW