Saturday, November 05, 2016

To Save and Project ’16: Legend of the Mountain

It was the biggest drum battle since Chick Webb faced off against Gene Krupa and the rest of the Goodman orchestra. When a demon and a Buddhist lama join engage in combat, their weapon of choice is the hand drum. The resulting percussion further disorients her profoundly confused newlywed scholar husband in King Hu’s freshly restored classic 1979 supernatural epic, Legend of the Mountain (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 edition of MoMA’s To Save and Project.

Ho Qingyun is an underachieving scholar who agrees to painstakingly copy a Buddhist sutra solely for the money. He did not believe in anything otherworldly before he accepted this gig, but that will soon change. While in transit from monastery to monastery he stops in a sparsely populated village that effectively became a demilitarized zone after an unfortunate uprising and an armistice that was even more embarrassing for the Imperial government.

Advisor Tsui is still on duty, but he is probably not a good influence on Ho. After a heavy night of drinking, the scholar wakes to find he has promised to marry Melody, whose drumming combined with the booze really did a number on poor Ho. However, since she is played Hsu Feng, the scholar is prepared to make good on his commitments. She also happens to be a demon, but he does not know that yet.

Shortly thereafter, Advisor Tsui takes Ho out for drinks at the local inn, where he meets the proprietor’s daughter, Cloud. She too makes a strong impression, but she also has her own supernatural secrets. Everyone does in the mountain village (practically and perhaps literally a ghost town), but nobody is telling Ho anything. Even the Buddhist lama who will challenge Melody’s powers of hypnotic percussion and his ally, the Taoist priest keep Ho in the dark.

Although Legend is a story of ghosts and demons (inspired by Pu Songling’s Stories from a Chinese Studio) rather than a rousing wuxia epic, all the King Hu hallmarks are present and accounted for. The restoration looks phenomenal, which allows viewers to soak in his stunning mountain vistas and dramatic wide-angle god’s eye perspectives. This is a big picture in every way, including the three-hour running time. Yet, Hu turns around a stages intimate scenes of comic farce worthy of Blake Edwards.

As usual, Hu repertory player Shih Chun is pitch-perfect, making Ho a guileless comic foil, but not a shticky caricature. Hsu Feng commands the screen as Melody, playing the demonic femme fatale to the hilt. It is also remarkable to watch the young and arresting Sylvia Chang making her mark as Cloud, especially knowing how she would shatter glass ceilings in the HK film industry as a director and screenwriter (for both her own vehicles and often for films reflecting male perspectives). This is a significant early role in an altogether remarkable career.

It seems self-evident in the post-Crouching Tiger era, but Hu was one of the first filmmakers who made snobby cineastes understand a film could be high art and also kick a lot of butt. You could think of Legend as the Chinese ghost story Washington Irving never wrote (it even starts with Ho dozing off in a mountain gazebo). Highly recommended for fans of HK/Taiwanese historical epics of any genre, Hu’s restored director’s cut of Legend of the Mountain screens again this Wednesday (11/9), as part of MoMA’s annual To Save and Project film restoration series.