King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain opens with serene strings and woodwinds humming over picturesque vistas: clear streams of water moving sinuously through woodlands dense with foliage, a majestic sky spread above, sunlight cutting through the clouds and waterfalls tumbling into churning pits below. These sounds give way to a clamor of cymbals, as the setting sun seeps across the horizon. Hu’s credit appears like a divine proclamation, as if he were claiming responsibility for the wonders of the earth. It’s an incredibly bold way to declare authorship, and asserts, rather dramatically, that this is a Hu film, though no one would ever mistake it for anything else.
Legend of the Mountain, which Hu wrote, edited, and directed, isn’t often spoken of in the same breath as his Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen: Those seminal films helped to bring the wuxia to the attention of Western audiences and remain touchstones for the genre, while Legend of the Mountain has, by comparison, lingered in relative obscurity here. But in its aesthetic assuredness and haunted mood, its controlled splendor, it might be the apogee of Hu’s oeuvre. Whereas A Touch of Zen usurped and critiqued the supernatural elements that define the genre of gods and ghosts known as shen guai, the opera-influenced Legend of the Mountain commits to them, pluming them for ontological truths. Hu amalgamates his aural, visual, and thematic affinities into a cohesive, singular, deeply spiritual entity. It’s a strange and mysterious bastard, one of the great works of Taiwanese cinema.
Ho (Chun Shih) is a skeptical copyist who transcribes Buddhist sutras for a living. He’s sent on a spiritual journey by a monk who requests a copy of an aphoristic Buddhist poem. “It’s just another job,” the narrator intones, as Ho traipses across the elephantine scenery. This leads Ho on a peregrination to meet a general. Hu loved wanderers, those uprooted artists and warriors who traverse the Chinese and Taiwanese landscapes, and he loved shooting landscapes. (Legend of the Mountain, whose cast and crew is a mix of Chinese and Taiwanese, was shot in South Korea.) The filmmaker situates people against his massive outdoor shots so that they seem small and insignificant, enfolded by monstrous buildings and towering trees, rivers snaking through the terrain, mountains looming like monoliths. Hu throws the incredulous Ho into a world similar to the one from which the scholar came, inhabited by corporeal beings who look like him and speak his language, but it’s all imbued with something strange and ineffable. At night the forest, which is as vast as an abyss, turns blue and black, as if bruised. The wiry branches of trees seem to be reaching out toward Ho, at once coaxing and warning him.
During his journey, Ho encounters fantastical sights and occurrences. First he espies a woman in white (Sylvia Chang) standing alone amid swirling fog, beckoning him like a siren only to disappear when he approaches her. Like Tadzio in A Death in Venice, she appears repeatedly (playing the flute, sitting atop a statue), taunting Ho with her ephemeral presence. She even shows up in the reflections of mirrors. Ho is befuddled, but things will get weirder still. We’re only slightly ahead of Ho—just enough so that we know he knows less.
Ho arrives at an expansive complex, a riparian dreamscape in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by a coterie of eccentrics: the patriarch Mr. Tsui (Tung Lam); the strange and imperious Mrs. Tsai (Rainbow Hsu); the enigmatic Zhang (Tien Feng); old Han (Yueh Sun), their ragged, unstable servant; the woman in white, who plays the flute and is named Cloud; and Melody (Hsu Feng), an alluring and mysterious drummer. Ho is asked to teach Melody how to copy sutras, which he deems inappropriate because she’s a girl; to his vexation, Mrs. Tsui insists, and she’s not the kind of woman one contests. He ends up engaged to her, though he doesn’t remember how this happened.
Insinuations of ghosts are draped over Legend of the Mountain’s story like a veil. The film unfurls slowly and erratically, like the paper wrapper of a straw on which a drop of water has been placed. There’s something ethereal in those derelict ruins, in the spider webs that gleam in the moonlight and the impossibly tall bamboo trees that stretch up toward the heavens, in the tendrils of smoke that slither always through the woods.
Hu’s mother was a traditional painter, and his first true love was Peking opera, the influence of which can be seen in the acrobatic fight scenes of his wuxia films. There’s a fastidious precision to Dragon Inn, every piece of fabric and shot composition just so, everything manicured and worked over. A Touch of Zen is, while still meticulously constructed, a wilder, more difficult endeavor, one that melds the traits of multiple genres and, in its three-plus hours, incorporates a plethora of characters and locations and, possibly, planes of existence. With Legend of the Mountain, which is mostly devoid of histrionic fight scenes, Hu concentrates all of his considerable prowess toward mood. He infuses simple conversations with a kinetic charge; the luscious pillow shots and establishing shots, immaculately composed, serve no master except their own profound beauty. There isn’t a lazy moment in the film, so careful and conscientious is Hu’s craftsmanship. Every pan and snap zoom and dissolve is exact, every whorl of smoke and wind-thrown swath of leaves pulled from a dream and placed methodically before our eyes.
Two scenes in particular extrapolate the film’s audacity. Melody, beating a drum with rapidity, casts a spell over Ho, and the incessant, rhythmic sound also sends Han into a frenzy as he clutches his head, agonizingly running from the house. Melody looks up at Ho with steady, clinical eyes. Ho, throwing back one more cup of tea, slips into delirium. This leads to a stylized, almost arabesque sex scene, during which the music plays doggedly and undeterred, appendages pallid against black backdrops and shots of writhing trees and fornicating dragonflies intercut before two spiders as a disquieting laugh echoes. If we never really understand what’s happening, that’s okay. Neither does Ho. King Hu makes nature feel salacious and sex natural.
Later, Melody and Zhang have a drum battle, during which the former pounds savagely at the instrument, her face glazed with sweat, summoning smoke monsters. It should be ridiculous, something akin to Tsui Hark’s flamboyant Green Snake, but Hu treats it so seriously, another example of his earnest spirituality, that the scene feels intimate, unnerving. This scene, in all it’s ludicrous glory, represents everything that makes Hu’s films special, and what makes Legend of the Mountain an epochal work. Hu approaches the physics-defying skirmish and supernatural elements with complete sincerity, using the familiar tropes of the wuxia to tell a story replete with incorporeal, divine entities, punctuated by bursts of violence and edited with digressive fluidity.
In Hu’s worldview, all things are connected by the ineffable; all beings, spirits, natural occurrences, and supernatural interferences are inexplicably bound. The film reflects this view: It operates with unexplained tension, never bothering to really explain its plot or tie up loose ends, and it’s crafted with logical filmmaking techniques. Hu finds the connection between the wuxia and Buddhism, sex and nature, cinema and life. He seems constantly amazed by the world around him, always observing and learning. And like the befuddled scholar, he never really seems to find what he’s looking for.