It’s difficult to pinpoint the excellence of a film like Legend of the Mountain or attribute its brilliance to one thing. There are films that haunt you long after you watch them, not unlike the spirits that shadow the living in this cult classic by King Hu made in 1979.
Legend of the Mountain’s plot feels less important than the way the timelessness or dream-like awareness present throughout is communicated through the use of space, movement, color, and sound. For the sake of conventionality, I will describe what happens where it is most relevant.
I became entranced from the first few moments, which depict a landscape, stream, sunset/sunrise coupled with sweeping music. The cinematic atmosphere the movie assumes is automatically effective. It draws you in like the current of a river.
This is a horror story told with softness and love, honoring both the living and the dead.
Ho Yunqing (Shih Chun) is a scholar tasked with translating Buddhist sutras that can bring rest to the dead, however they have a tremendous power over the material and spirit realm alike. He must travel to a peaceful monastery to be able to focus on the task at hand. On his journey, Ho is transported through time and space. Finally reaching his destination, he becomes enthralled with a vengeful ghost, Melody, (Hsu Feng), transfixed by her charismatic playing of the drum, he falls victim to her enchanting spell. Melody’s goal is to use the sutra for her own devilish intentions.
Most of the spirits he meets during his journey have the same aim, including the beautiful Cloud (Sylvia Chang) who also realizes she is in love with the dashing traveler and transcriber. Cloud becomes remorseful when confronted with her initial scheme to also use the sutra for mischievous purpose.
The plot is dreamy and illusory, spanning generations and the veil between this world and the next. This quality is translated through the use of wide and omnipresent camera angles, capturing the beautiful backdrop of South Korea where Legend of the Mountain was filmed. The way space occupies the frame is an interesting object of study. When there are close-ups of the characters or the nature they’re surrounded by, it is intimate and beautiful. It becomes clear that the transcendent aspect of this gorgeously lush and illustrated film makes itself known through every movement and frame, not unlike the dancing the spirits partake in within their rage, conniving, and freedom. The camera dances too, building storytelling through movement, momentum, stillness – leaving us breathless.
Legend of the Mountain is a feast for the eyes, taking us into a space that only exists within the imagination. The cinematic use of color is nothing short of mesmerizing. A sense of magic in the artificial naturalness of the setting prevails; the dream is enhanced by the royal purple/blue mist that seems to embrace everything at night, the way the lighting casts soft shadows on the faces of the actors.
The film also utilizes sound design in the most brilliant way. The score has nods to more traditional and instrumental based music: zithers, drums, flutes, etc., in addition to moments of electronic synthesization. It creates a sonic experience that is modern in its approach, but also culturally expressive and unique. Anyone interested in music or sound design could learn a lot from the sound in Legend of the Mountain, used to reveal the emotions that run deep in the heart of the film.
Through sound, movement/space, and cinematic color, Legend of the Mountain creates a mood that surpasses the boundaries of time and location. This isn’t to say that the setting (the Song Dynasty of China during the 11th Century) is insignificant as it very much contributes to the richness and folklore contained within the three hour time-frame. Legend of the Mountain is a celebration of what gives meaning to our lives and how we can pay tribute to the dead; all told within the confines of a beautifully-crafted mythological horror story (although it defies categorizations of genre). The film utilizes what makes cinema one of the most distinctive and riveting mediums; using visual language and soundscapes to accomplish this.
Ho is a wanderer who finds value through the act of wandering itself. He returns the sutra and is met with a curious question concerning why he hasn’t left yet. We see homages to the beginning of the film, bringing to mind the cyclical nature of the tale, of life. Did the encounter with the spirits exist in a place outside of time? Will the adventures occur ad infinitum, like some ouroboric mythos? Is this the product of the imagination of a lonely traveler, wanting to see the magical and the surreal in the mundane? Such queries are never answered. This is a story that thrives on mystery. There’s always something to be gained within the shadow of the mysterious; be it enlightenment or an appreciation for the world before us.