By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Film director/writer King Hu (1932-1997) was born in Beijing, but achieved success working in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He shot several classic “wuxia” (martial arts films set in ancient China), but by the time he made “Legend of the Mountain” in 1979, he’d moved beyond the relatively simple martial arts stories which came earlier.
Indeed, “Legend of the Mountain” is a difficult film to classify. It starts in ancient times with an earnest scribe, Ho (played by Shih Chun), sent to copy a long and difficult sutra, or Buddhist sacred text, allegedly to soothe lost souls in the supernatural world.
Ho gets the texts and then goes up and down and all around, searching for the quiet place he’s been promised, to work his translation. He passes through forests, the wilderness, winding grassy hills, majestic but foreboding structures that look like palaces, or temples, long abandoned, their finery running to ruin as mold and fungi take over.
Over the course of the film, Hu shows the viewer long, rich, sumptuous shots of nature and the flora and fauna which make it up. He has enough of such footage, over the film’s more than three-hour running time, to make a nature documentary. We’ll follow the humans for awhile and then follow trees, plants, and multi-colored spiders which apparently spin their webs alongside each other. Koi fish, symbolizing good luck, appear several times, as people make prayers to them.
It takes Ho a long time to get where he’s going. Some viewers may grow impatient between the slow-running plot and all the nature photography. But Hu is thinking big and deep here. He wants to compare and contrast animals, plants, and insects, to the foibles of the men and women who imagine themselves superior to all that. The truth, Hu postulates, runs more complicated than that. And the joke might be on us.
The film is a record of a voyage, certainly. It’s also the story of friendship and love, as Ho, a well-meaning but slightly naïve fellow, gets mixed up in both, and has plenty of time to ponder whether he’s made the right choices. It’s a martial arts film, to a certain extent, although Hu lets things gently simmer for the first half or so, before dropping in the action sequences. And his not-entirely-corporal warriors fight not only with fists and flying, as we’d expect through wuxia, but using ritual, musical virtuosity (including deadly drums), smoke, and heat.
And oddly enough, the film works as a comedy, too. Ho stumbles on a series of colorful characters. Some get along, some don’t. Some have agendas that they want to keep hidden from certain folks. They’ll say and do one thing over here, then flip over to what they really want when they think the coast is clear. Navigating all this turbulent social terrain proves every bit as difficult, to Ho, as the demons, spirits, and intellectual challenges he faces.
In the end, we learn what’s really going on. But going along for the ride proves more important than the truth behind everyone’s agendas. You must sit in front of this film and let it simmer in your mind, to get everything Hu wants you to get. In the end, danger must be braved, love must be tested, and serious threats to the corporeal world must be defeated. But these things prove necessary trials. The folks who survive, find their strength in love, trust, and making their own microcosm with respect to the planet’s macrocosm. Everyone, and everything, finds a proper place, in time.
“Legend of the Mountain” plays March 1–4 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle. For prices, tickets, and showtimes, visit nwfilmforum.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.