In a new series, called CinemAsia’s FILM TALKS, specialists from CinemAsia tell about the background of a special film. In this first FILMTALKS episode CinemAsia’s Artistic Director Maggie Lee speaks in video and written presentation. She introduces the legendary Chinese director King Hu and his recently in Taiwan restored film Legend of the mountain.
To understand King Hu and Legend of the mountain, let me begin by explaining a little about the Chinese Wuxia-genre. It’s a combination of the words ‘Wu’ which means ‘martial’ and ‘xia’ which is a Chinese standard of ‘chivalry’. It originated as serialized martial arts literature, with more focus on swordplay, than say, hand & fist combat, in the style of Bruce Lee kung-fu. The aesthetic beauty of movement and art direction is instrumental in conveying the film’s philosophy.
Tribute to King Hu
King Hu’s importance to the Wuxia-genre is equivalent to that of John Ford to the western or Stanley Donen to the musical. Born in 1932 in Beijing and emigrated to Hong Kong in 1949, he was the first filmmaker to infuse the essence of Zen and Confucianism into wuxia . His works reflect his scholarly background in classical Chinese supernatural literature, Peking Opera and other arts. Ang Lee’s Crouching the tiger, hidden dragons and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The assasin are all inspired homages to his oeuvre.
His early films Come drink with me and Dragon Inn were entertaining pieces that brought action choreography to new heights. A touch of zen which won an award in Cannes for technical excellence in 1975, is a masterpiece that reinvented the genre with an entirely new visual language.
King Hu pushes his boundaries
He pushed the boundaries further with Raining in the mountain and Legend of the mountain, both shot in South Korea in 1979. Adopted from Song Ren Hua Ben, a written collection of popular oral stories of the Song-Dynasty, it recounts the strange things that happen to a scholar who goes to the mountain to copy a Buddhist Sutra.
Most spiritual film in Wuxia-genre
Legend of the mountain is arguably the most spiritual of Wuxia films. In fact, there’s neither ‘wu’ nor ‘xia’ in it. The clash of swords is rendered invisible, replaced by the seductive notes of a flute or a symphony of drums and cymbals.
Hu’s theme here is transcendence. In Wuxia terms, the traditional pursuit of invincibility is symbolized by the ghosts’ attempt to steal the Sutra, which can help them reincarnate. In cinematic terms, the film transcended the medium, lifting visual storytelling into the realm of poetry. The scenery resembled inkbrush landscape paintings, the actresses’ robes and hair design were reminiscent of Song-Dynasty portraits of court ladies.
King Hu’s muze
The traditional black-and-white morality of Wuxia is also transcended by the characters’ struggle to let go of worldly desires. The two female protagonists are played by King Hu’s muse Hsu Feng and actress-director Sylvia Chang. It was one of the most memorable onscreen duos in Taiwan & HongKong cinema.
Five Golden Horse Awards
The first completed version ran up to 184 minutes. It was cut to 120 minutes for theatrical release, but this caused the film to be too fragmented for the general audience to grasp, and it flopped in the box office. King Hu submitted his original Director’s Cut to the Golden Horse Awards, the most important award for Chinese-language cinema. It won Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Score.
The film print was kept in the Hong Kong Film Archive for preservation until 2016, when the Taiwan Film Institute obtained the restoration rights, and commissioned Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovata Film Laboratory to undertake the 4K remastering.
The print was seriously damaged by mold and the restoration was complicated by the existence of 3 versions. In the end, a careful selective combination of all 3 versions was made, with color correction supervised by Hu longtime Director of Photography Chen Junjie. Xu Feng, who stars in this film and is the director’s muse, donated about 500,000 Euros to enable this masterpiece to be restored and shown to the world.
Space for imagination
At a time when Chinese martial arts blockbusters try to dazzle us with a storm of VFX effects and lavish production values, it’s especially refreshing to see King Hu’s minimalist take which leaves so much more space for imagination and meditation.