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  Legend of the Mountain She Bangs The Drum
Year: 1979
Director: King Hu
Stars: Shih Chun, Hsu Feng, Sylvia Chang, Chen Hui Lou, Rainbow Hsu, Sun Yueh, Tien Feng, Tung Lin, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Wu Ming-Tsai
Genre: Horror, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Stories of ghosts, spirits and demons have always been popular across China, but have you heard this one, the tale of a scholar named Ho (Shih Chun) who after completing his studies found work difficult to come by, and had to opt to being paid as a copyist instead, that was a writer who copied out books for this was the eleventh century and the printing press had yet to be invented. Even then, there were slim pickings for a man in that profession, and he found he had to move to an isolated but picturesque region where a sutra, or collection of holy writings, needed to be duplicated at a temple. It sounded simple enough, but what if certain entities were not happy with this?

Legend of the Mountain was the last film of the nineteen-seventies for King Hu, the man who had revolutionised the art of the Hong Kong cinema industry by proving just because a kung fu flick was entertainment, didn't mean it couldn't be poetic too. That had been back in the sixties with Come Drink with Me, however, by the stage he made this and its more obscure companion piece in 1979, he was not the box office draw he had been, resulting in this effort, which ran over three hours, being drastically cut to increase its commercial chances. Alas, for years it was the most widely distributed variation, if indeed it was distributed at all, until the full-length incarnation reappeared.

In a way, this had been overcome by events in the film world in another style, as the Hong Kong New Wave of the eighties had seen a bunch of reimaginings of old favourites with added, newfangled special effects work, and so it was Tsui Hark produced a sort of remake of Legend of the Mountain, only snappier, more commercialised, and with little of the pretensions, called A Chinese Ghost Story. That was a huge hit across the world, spawning sequels and was even remade itself, further damning Hu's endeavour to the past where it would be forgotten, not by design exactly, but because it missed its chance to make a mark other than as an inspiration for a more successful enterprise eight years later.

Nevertheless, if you ever had faith that talent will endure, assuming it had been recorded in some variety, then the re-emergence of Hu's fantasy tale would be cause for cheering, as by the twenty-first century his work outwith his sixties era was being reassessed, leading A Touch of Zen, for example, to be hailed as a classic unsung in its day. It would seem Legend of the Mountain, or Shan zhong zhuan qi as it was originally called, was awarded the same treatment, which was good because although there was something to be said for Hark's more compact version, there was definite quality in Hu's vision where he attempted to lift what was a basic folk tale of a kind told across the globe in various incarnations and mixing up of details, to the level of a masterpiece of Chinese art.

If he did not quite achieve that, it was not for want of trying as he focused on the natural world to ally his efforts with the beauty of the flora and fauna, both captivating and terrible in equal measure: there was possibly the greatest symbolic sex scene ever here, which saw the participants on a swing, separately, intercut with leafy glades and closeups of insects mating - but also colourful spiders on their webs to imply our hero has been snared by something monstrous. When he shows up at the retreat he is supposed to conduct his task in, there is hardly anybody about (does the vanishing flute player count?), but he soon likes the look of Melody (soon-to-be powerful producer Hsu Feng), the daughter of the governess there. However, did he like her enough to be abruptly married to her, not remembering the ceremony at all? And what of the equally comely Cloud (Sylvia Chang, best known as an actress for the Mad Mission series), is she to be trusted? To say more would break the spell of mystery, but if Hu could get self-consciously arty, and indulged himself too far, there was plenty to admire if you chose to immerse yourself in this fantasy realm. Music by Wu Ta Chiang.

[The Eureka Blu-ray is a godsend to fans of this film as well as those curious enough to try it, looking and sounding better than ever, and with featurettes and a booklet as extras.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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