'Raining in the Mountain' ('Kong Shan Ling Yu'): Film Review

Raining in the Mountain
Film Movement
A wry moral tale with dashes of action.
10/30/2020

The leader of a monastery calmly juggles the ambitions of those around him in King Hu's wuxia drama.

Another in a string of restorations that in recent years have benefitted fans of wuxia legend King Hu, Raining in the Mountain is one of two pictures the late Hong Kong- and Taiwan-based auteur (most famous for Come Drink with Me and the Cannes favorite A Touch of Zen) made in South Korea. Considerably shorter and more direct than the other Korean project (Legend of the Mountain, which got its first U.S. run in 2018), this 1979 film focuses on mortal ambition and corruption instead of witchcraft, and again, is not for viewers who expect a high ratio of action to dialogue. But patient viewers will find much to enjoy in this parable-like story, which is billed as a heist film but is ultimately less concerned with thievery than with moral justice.

The remote Three Treasures Temple, overseen by a nonagenarian abbot (Chin Chang-Ken), is serene at first glance: set high up a mist-shrouded, forested mountain and populated by monks who spend their days in prayer and contemplation. But it's actually both a place simmering with internal conflict — among the young monks hoping the soon-to-retire abbot will choose them as his successor — and targeted by outsiders: One of the treasures that gives the place its name, a scroll containing the Mahayana Sutra, is a priceless relic that is not very well guarded.

Sadly, some of the abbot's most trusted advisers have designs on that scroll. As he prepares to choose which monk will replace him, the abbot seeks advice from his old friend Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh); a general named Wang (Tien Fung); and a lay Buddhist scholar (Wu Chia-Hsiang) who, though he travels with a coterie of young women, is said to be so spiritually oriented he's "immune to sensual pleasures."

Some if not all of the above have hidden agendas, but we know Wen's from the start: He travels with a servant and a concubine (Ming-Tsai Wu and frequent Hu collaborator Feng Hsu) who are actually cat burglars tasked with stealing the scroll for him. Much of the film's first half hour watches as the two sneak, hide and leap over walls while casing the temple's grounds, interrupted only by scenes introducing other characters and explaining how each fits into local politics.

We're nearly an hour into the picture before seeing anything that could be called action, when a constable named Chang Cheng (Chen Hui-Lou) catches the thieves with a box of pilfered prayer beads. The ensuing game of keep-away plays almost more like choreographed comedy than a fight scene, though, and looks even sillier in comparison to the violence-free but highly charged confrontation that comes next — when the lieutenant bumps into a man he once had imprisoned on false charges.

That convict, Chiu Ming (Tung Lin), purchased the right to become a monk instead of serving his sentence; the movie quickly establishes him as its embodiment of humility and virtue, happy to serve the abbot in any lowly capacity. As with that famous piece of calligraphy, which the abbot often dismisses as a "tattered old scroll," exceptional inner worth often comes in an unimpressive physical package.

Raining will eventually stage some colorful chase sequences through beautifully photographed woods, and Henry Chan's painterly widescreen compositions are well served by this restoration. But the richest thing the film offers lies within the temple's walls: As he did in The Fate of Lee Khan, which was set mostly inside a roadside inn, Hu brings a small space to life as a network of invisible schemes, alliances and ambition. Three or four important monks join the aforementioned characters in pursuit of either the abbot's spiritual blessing or his material possessions; most of them are using someone else as a tool, and few understand they're not the only ones who know how to smile while lying. It's hardly a spoiler to say that the abbot, who talks little and sees much, is not the easiest person to deceive.

Production company: Lo & Hu Company Productions Ltd.
Distributor: Film Movement
Cast: Hsu Feng, Sun Yueh, Tung Lin, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Wu Ming-Tsai, Lu Chun, Shih Chun, Tien Fung, Chen Hui-Lou, Paul Chun Pui, Chin Chang-Ken
Director-Screenwriter-Editor: King Hu
Producers: King Hu, Wu Sau-Yee
Executive producers: Lo Kai-Muk, Chung Ling
Director of photography: Henry Chan
Composer: Ng Tai Kong

In Mandarin
121 minutes