It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a King Hu movie, and since another of his Taiwanese films, Raining in the Mountain, has been available on the Criterion Channel, I figure it’s time to revisit this film – and it’s arguably a little more Buddhist than his other film of the same year (also shot in Korea), Legend of the Mountain.
Raining in the Mountain is set in a remote Buddhist monastery, which is the home of a rare, sacred handwritten Buddhist sutra. The Abbot (Kim Chang-Gean) of the monastery is planning to retire and looks to name his successor. Due to the prominence of the monastery, he’s called three local figures to help select the new abbot – merchant Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh), who the monastery has financial dealings with, and General Wang (Tien Feng), the local governor, and lay scholar Master Wu Wai (Wu Chia-Hsiang). Wen and Wang both have their own preferred candidates who they would like to succeed the abbot, as they want that rare scroll. Further, if their abbot doesn’t go with their candidate, they also have backup plans to steal the scroll, with Wen having brought master thief White Fox (Hsu Feng), and Wang having brought corrupt constable Chang Cheng (Chen Hui-Lo) to steal it. On top of that, there’s also a former convict, Hui Ssu (Paul Chun Pui), who is also taking holy orders. This leads to a variety of political maneuverings between the various factions as they try to get their candidate the position of being the Abbot and if they can’t get that, then to get the scroll.
The writing is really solid – Hu is in a position where he gets to talk about Buddhist philosophy, part of A Touch of Zen’s story and much of Legend of the Mountain’s story, but gets to balance it with telling a martial arts caper story, and it juggles both of those concepts incredibly well. There are some tremendous moments of banter here, including some really solid comedy. In particular, any time that Wang and Wen encounter each other mid-plot is comedy gold. Both people know what the other is trying to do, but they don’t know that the other person knows what they’re up to, so they’re both trying to pass everything off with an air of false gentility that is utterly transparent and I love it.
The fight choreography here is solid – as with the fights in the other King Hu films so far (with the exception of Come Drink With Me) everything stays relatively grounded. This is much more a caper film with martial arts in it instead of a martial arts film that has a caper in it. And technically, it’s a Buddhist caper film with a topping of Martial Arts sauce.
Honestly, I really don’t have anything to complain about regarding the movie. If it gets preachy, it’s getting preachy in a way that makes sense in context. You expect Buddhist monks, especially ones who want to be the abbot of a Buddhist monastery, to think and talk about Buddhism a lot. This is also going to come up in the context of who ends up becoming the abbot. If you get annoyed by people talking about Buddhist philosophy and thought, this is not the movie for you. This isn’t going to teach you everything you want to know about Buddhism, but if you have even a slight understanding of some of the beliefs of Buddhism, you’ll get a little more out of it.
Currently Raining in the Mountain is available for streaming on the Criterion Channel, and also is available on physical media from Amazon.com – buying anything through that link helps to support the show.