Tasked to transcribe a powerful set of Buddhist sutras, naive young scholar Ho Yungqing soon finds himself embroiled in a Dracula-esque story of unexpected horrors when he travels in search of a bit of peace and quiet to an isolated monastery deep in the mountains. Beset by a number of strange locals, chief among them the bewitchingly alluring Melody, the tale soon takes on a mystical dimension rife with black magic and ethereal spirits. Can Ho escape this dreamlike world of nightmarish horrors?
Legend of the Mountain is adapted from a Song Dynasty folk tale, and it certainly shows. King Hu’s direction of the story is suffused with a fable-like feel, stripping its characters and their motives down to their very simplest. Ho’s naive everyman charm is the perfect foil to Melody’s alluring, manipulative beauty, and it’s easy to empathise with his desperate desire to maintain his sanity as all around him, everything tumbles into chaos. There’s a fantastically eerie atmosphere at work here, one that will be familiar to fans of the old-school thrills evident in the likes of House (1977) and Kwaidan (1965). On the flip side, in its rampant use of scenic eye-candy, hyper-saturated colours and earthy, organically lyrical soundscapes, it also inevitably recalls Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015).
For all that Legend of the Mountain revels in its bloated three-hour runtime, its middle segments are suffused with a propulsive romantic energy as Ho courts both Melody and the sweetly innocent serving maid Cloud. From a powerfully emblematic sequence that intercuts a sex scene with imagery of mating insects, to a tender vignette where Ho and Cloud search for herbs amidst a mist-swathed stream, there’s an elegiac beauty that runs the full gamut from the film’s eye-poppingly gorgeous visuals to a surprisingly hearty emotional core.
Fans of Hu’s more action-orientated flicks (eg. Dragon Inn) won’t be disappointed either though - halfway through the runtime, Legend of the Mountain turns its hand to some impressive wirework; all the more impactful for its restrained use. Instead of physical punchups, we’re treated to a series of demented magical showdowns in which the ceaseless beating rhythms of percussion instruments and some innovative pre-CGI visual effects take the lead. It makes for a potent combo, and one in which its uniqueness is sure to linger long in the memory of the viewer. The excellent accompanying video essay from David Cairns mentions who Hu was keen to make his audiences experience more than merely the visual and auditory aspects of filmmaking - and in this respect, Legend of the Mountain’s sheer *strangeness* as a cinematic experience more than succeeds.
For some, the movie’s slow pacing (in particular its languid first act) and epic runtime will be a sore point. But for those that can settle into the film’s unique rhythms, Legend of the Mountain becomes a richly involving, sensory masterpiece quite apart from anything else you’ll likely watch this year.
Extras include a limited edition O-Card (2000 units), video essay by filmmaker David Cairns, an accompanying interview with critic Tony Rayns, a trailer and collector’s booklet.