Raining in the Mountain (1979)
Director: King Hu
Cast: Hsu Feng, Sun Yueh, Shih Chun
Plot: An esquire and a General eyes a priceless handwritten scroll by Tripitaka, held in a Temple library. The Abbot of the Temple selects his successor.
Genre: Drama / Action
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
It didn't really rain in the mountain. I spotted a drizzle, but there wasn't rain. King Hu’s beautiful title of a film may suggest a poetic edge, but don’t expect swordfighting in the rain on a mountaintop, a mental image I tried to project prior to seeing the movie.
Much of the film is set in a temple as crafty people – monks, generals, and esquires try to outwit one another to steal a valuable Buddhist scroll. In the ensuing chaos and strategic backfiring, an old abbot must find a successor.
Hu’s screenplay is dense with plotting, and his direction sees his characters always thinking ahead, though rarely shrewdly. We see them dart from one place to another. They hide behind a door; they emerge from a window. The precise camerawork tracking their movements is a joy to behold.
If you can appreciate Hu’s delicate raising of dramatic stakes and the consistent build-up of tension through percussion music, you will find Raining in the Mountain entertaining in its own unique way. To call it a wuxia picture might be inaccurate. Action does not dominate the proceedings unlike Hu’s other more action-oriented works such as Dragon Inn (1967) and The Valiant Ones (1975).
In Raining in the Mountain, the focus is on drama and situational humour. From the period setting and costumes to the traditional power plays that unfold, Hu’s film in many ways resembles closely to the kind of popular Chinese or Korean television drama serials that are set in ancient times, about conniving subordinates with ulterior motives plotting against each other for power and greed.
Here, instead of a king’s palace, we have an abbot’s temple, continuing Hu’s fascination with Buddhism after the epic A Touch of Zen (1971), where peace-minding monks have extraordinary powers. Here, monks are merely pawns. At one point, some of them even revolt against terrible food served in the temple.
Raining in the Mountain is underrated. It is in some way a small departure for Hu, yet it retains the filmmaking style and spirit of the master filmmaker's earlier works. The lack of action is not a liability, though Hu obliges with a climactic chase sequence in a forested area, showing us why at the flick of a switch, he can expertly turn dramatic tension into a more cinematic, thrilling form.
Verdict: Full of plotting and deception, this drama-focused King Hu work manages to entertain through consistent build-up.
GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)
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