Wednesday, May 2, 2018

You Played the Flute, I Played the Drums

Legend of the Mountain (d. King Hu) - I think it's safe to say that, at this point, among the people who care about and notice such things, Asian genre cinema has made a fairly strong impact on, and over the past couple of decades has become more and more available in, the Western world. Asian crime, action, and horror films, in particular, have provided, at minimum, an invigorating alternative when the American versions begin to feel stale (the Japanese horror film Pulse has more ideas and a more chilling patience than just about any American horror film since 2000; Korean revenge films are not like other revenge films). Less represented in this Eastern genre surge are science-fiction and fantasy films, though not because they don't exist. In 2000, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon was released. At the time, Lee was riding a wave of commercial and critical successes (and he hadn't even won either of his two Best Director Oscars yet), which I assume helped him mount this ambitious period action fantasy, which was also hugely successful. It was inspired by the wuxia films -- essentially martial arts films set in the past, if you will allow me to grossly oversimplify -- Lee loved so much, and for a brief period of time the door was open for other wuxia films to at least be distributed (so many of those that found an audience were directed by Zhang Yimou that this seemed almost to be a stipulation). Eventually that dried up. Had it gone longer, easy access to the films of the Taiwanese director King Hu may have come sooner, but for whatever reason it's here now: Criterion released A Touch of Zen, his best known film, in 2017, with Dragon Inn slated for later this year, and yesterday Kino Lorber put out on Blu-ray Legend of the Mountain, his 192-minute, fascinatingly small-scale epic. Which brings us to today.

I must begin by saying that A Touch of Zen, which I watched a couple of weeks ago, was more or less what I was expecting (up to a point, anyway), in that it combines the fantastic with elaborate martial arts fight scenes (Lee borrowed a lot from this movie, as he'd be the first to tell you), as well as, as the title suggests, a heavy dose of spirituality. Though of a different religion, A Touch of Zen is the kind of fantasy film that I believe C.S. Lewis would have appreciated. But while Legend of the Mountain resembles that earlier film in many ways -- both star Chun Shih as very similar financially unambitious scholars, both also feature old military forts, and ghosts played by Feng Hsu -- where it differs marks it as a truly unique piece of fantasy cinema. For one thing, if, for a film to be counted as wuxia, it has to prominently feature martial arts, then I guess Legend of the Mountain ain't that, because it doesn't have any. It has some combat, but it's always a magical, wizardly sort of combat. The most common and effective weapon used is a drum. The closest King Hu gets to recreating the leaping, floating fight scenes that made A Touch of Zen so influential is in a showdown between the demon Melody (Feng Hsu) and a priest played by Chen Hui-Lou. There is much that is acrobatic about this scene, but Hu shoots it from the point of view of a monk played by Ng Ming-Choi, who watches the fight, which is taking place outdoors, from inside a hut, through the doorway. So we see it from the same distance as the monk. On top of that, Hu cuts rapidly between the fight and the monk, who is throwing smoke bombs (or whatever) to try and help the priest. So the most elaborate fight is never seen closely, is frequently cut away from, and is increasingly obscured by smoke.

None of this is meant as a criticism, by the way. Legend of the Mountain is just the damnedest thing. It's over three hours, and the magical elements are brought in early, and are used heavily, and not subtly, throughout the film. Yet there are maybe seven characters total, and the vast majority of the story takes place within one, maybe two, square miles. Also, Ho Yunqing, the scholar played by Chun Shih, is introduced as a skeptic, which one might naturally soon is a detail introduced to set up later conflicts between spirituality and reason, except that Ho sees people vanish before his eyes very early on, and his skepticism vanishes right along with them. In other words, Legend of the Mountain is unconcerned with the typical set-ups and payoffs that tiresomely define so much genre filmmaking these days. Late in the film, a clumsily committed, thoroughly un-magical murder changes everything, but not necessarily in the way murders might normally change things. Legend of the Mountain doesn't follow a formula, it follows itself.