Raining In The Mountain (Kong shan ling yu)
Hong Kong/Taiwan (1979) Dir. King Hu
“Those who really seek the path to Enlightenment dictate terms to their mind. Then they proceed with strong determination.”
This could also apply to many people in their life’s endeavours but this quote is aimed at those seeking spiritual wisdom from Buddhism. Except the group of people paying a visit to the Buddhist temple in this film are seeking something other than enlightenment.
In 16th century China, at a remote Buddhist monastery high in the mountains, The Three Treasures Temple, where the ailing incumbent Abbot (Kim Chang-Gean) is planning his retirement. To choose his successor, the Abbot seeks the advice of three outsiders – wealthy patron of the monastery Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh), military man General Wang (Tien Feng), and respected lay Buddhist master Wu Wai (Wu Chia-Hsiang).
However, Wen and Wang haven’t come alone – Wen has thieves White Fox (Hsu Feng) and Gold Lock (Ng Ming-Choi) whilst Wang has Lieutenant Chang Cheng (Chen Hui-Lou) – as they both seek to steal the sacred handwritten Mahayana Sutra by Tripitaka from the temple’s scroll library. Meanwhile, former convict Chiu Ming (Tung Lin) arrives at the monastery to become a monk, having been wrongfully imprisoned by Chang Cheng.
So much for Buddhist temples being havens for peace, tranquillity, and meditation, it is all go at the Three Treasures once his corrupt bunch arrive, but what else do you expect with King Hu at the helm? Hu seems to have made a career out of ensemble pieces in which suspicious people congregate at a singular location and try to pull off some kind of operation without alerting those around them, and Raining In The Mountain is another entry into this canon.
Made back-to-back at the same location – the South Korean countryside – with much of the same cast as Legend Of The Mountain, Hu may have mined a familiar well for his plot but still turns in a twisting, suspenseful tale of intrigue and betrayal that stand up in its own right. The main difference on this occasion is the usual wu xia exploits are almost non-factors, save for two very brief fight scenes.
Given this is one of the many elements of Hu’s legacy, it is remarkable how we actually don’t notice the lack of action at all, a testament to the engaging storytelling. However, one does have to exercise a bit of patience before this realisation sinks in as the first hour is slow in pace, opening with ten minutes of Wen and co walking to and around the monastery, and five minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken.
Fortunately, the verdant rural setting is gorgeously shot by Henry Chan and looks every bit as serene and mystical as it is supposed to within the Buddhist purview, and certainly radiates elegance in this new HD transfer. This makes what should be a dull experience a lot easier to sit through, along with the range of shots, from wide open panoramic views to intimate captures of their journey.
Notorious thief White Fox is pretending to be Wen’s concubine and Golden Lock his valet, but the masks slip almost as soon as they settle into the temple as they set about in search of the scroll library. This involves them stealthily running about the grounds of the monastery, though obviously it is an excuse for Hu to surreptitiously show off this impressive location, again captured through an appreciative lense.
The story sounds rather simple, with two parties sneakily trying to outsmart the other in unlawfully obtaining a prized object – which is actually deemed a worthless scrap of paper by the Abbot – but it really isn’t. Hu adds some spice by introducing three monks who feel they should succeed the Abbot, but only one, Hui Ssu (Paul Chun Pui) wants to earn it on his own merits, as Hui Wen (Lu Chan) gets Wen to support his campaign and corrupt Hui Tung (Shih Jun) colludes with General Wang.
But it is Chiu Ming that threatens to ruin these plans for everyone, although he doesn’t know it yet. Chang Cheng may not recognise him but Chiu Ming is fully aware of the man who killed his brother and sent him to prison on a trumped up charge and when the two do finally meet, Chiu Ming is forced to hold his temper. But this is enough for Wang and Cheng to use Chui Ming’s criminal past as a distraction for their own nefarious needs.
Speaking of distractions, lay master Wu Wai is accompanied by a harem of young nuns (not the wimple wearing type). In a rare slip, Hu presents these ladies in an objectified light in an admittedly amusing scene when they are all bathing in the river (clothed) as the monks are praying nearby, unable to concentrate on their mantras.
However, this is a minor matter as alpha female White Fox gets to show off her fighting prowess in both fight scenes, the first more a comedy ballet routine as she tussles with Cheng over a box, the second is a bloodier, weapon fought affair in the forest. The key to these scenes is that they are congruent to the story and don’t just happen to fulfil a quota, largely as the story is compelling enough on its own.
With most of the cast Hu regulars, we know strong performances are guaranteed and are delivered, and whilst some are playing to type, like Tien Feng, others are stretched playing the monks, having to convey the virtues of their ascetic teachings, at least when they are not scheming the others’ downfall.
A crime mystery based around the tenets of Buddhist scriptures and mantras hardly screams engrossing entertainment but that is exactly what Raining In The Mountain delivers (but no rain). It might lack the multiple wu xia displays of his other works and doesn’t break any new ground thematically but we are enlightened to Hu’s abilities as a master filmmaker.