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Review: The Legend of the Mountain

Just got back in from a late screening of King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain (newly restored by Kino Lorber) at Metrograph. Hu is best known in the west for his work in the wuxia genre, but this ghost story shares more in common with Kwaidan and Ugetsu than a Shaw Bros. production, allowing the director to stretch a slightly different set of muscles, substituting gravity-defying swordplay and bone-crushing Kung fu with spectacular magical duels and suspenseful exorcisms.

Of course, certain stylistic flourishes remain unmistakable. As in Dragon Inn, the setting is more of a protagonist than any human character; the camera drinks in the eponymous mountain’s natural splendor during the opening credits, lingering on the swirling mist, babbling brooks, and verdant slopes. Occasionally, the plot (which revolves around an 11th century scholar’s efforts to elude demonic spirits, enigmatic wizards, and a nagging mother-in-law as he struggles to copy a particularly difficult Buddhist sutra) feels almost obligatory, serving as a mere excuse to explore scenic trails and observe the local wildlife.

Fortunately, unlike Hu’s more popular A Touch of Zen, Legend of the Mountain never loses its narrative focus, despite its three-hour length: the conflict, stakes, and motivations are always clear, though a bit of fat could easily have been trimmed. Nevertheless, the film is ultimately a triumph: atmospheric, surprisingly funny, and gorgeously photographed. I’m not Hu’s biggest fan, but considering my reaction to this and Dragon Inn, maybe it’s time to revisit a few of his other movies…

[Originally written February 4, 2018.]

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