“Raining in the Mountain” – Always fair weather [MOVIE REVIEW]

Feng Hsu as White Fox and Yueh Sun as Esquire Wen in "Raining in the Mountain." Photo courtesy of Film Movement Classics.

Feng Hsu as White Fox and Yueh Sun as Esquire Wen in “Raining in the Mountain.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement Classics.

“Raining in the Mountain,” was directed and written by King Hu, a master of wuxia films. Wuxia, for those of you like me who are unacquainted by the term, is an adventure genre featuring martial arts and ancient Chinese themes. “Raining in the Mountain,” a Hong Kong and Taiwanese co-production originally released in 1979, has just been given a 2K digital restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute.

A classic wuxia film, “Raining in the Mountain” is about the appointment of a new head abbot at an important Buddhist monastery in an isolated, beautiful mountain range during the Ming Dynasty (more than likely in the 16th century). The interest of a wealthy entrepreneur and an important General goes beyond the influence they exert over the religious order. They have eagerly accepted the abbot’s invitation to weigh in on the choice of his successor for the same reason. They each covet a rare and priceless scroll that is housed within the Temple complex. General Wang and Esquire Wen have each arrived with “assistants.” Esquire Wen has brought with him the White Fox who he introduces as his concubine. The exquisitely beautiful White Fox is, in reality, a master thief who has been handsomely paid for her services. General Wang is accompanied by Lieutenant Chang Cheng, a notoriously corrupt police officer well versed in the art of disappearing precious objects.

Hedging their bets, each luminary has also enlisted a monk to support as the successor abbot; and each monk has promised fealty and possession of the scroll to his sponsor. But Wang and Wen are blindsided when the abbot brings in an incorruptible lay Buddhist as his primary advisor. This is not going to be as straightforward as the luminaries had hoped. Also complicating matters is the entrance of an ex-convict as an apprentice monk. Having been wrongly convicted of a crime, he was able to pay to join the monastery instead of being banished to military service. Devout, he bears ill will to no one, including the unknown police official who framed him and killed his brother. That man was Lieutenant Chang Cheng. He instantly recognizes Chiu Ming who he must neutralize or kill.

That in a nutshell is the plot. An ancient, priceless scroll in possession of the pious poor is coveted by the greedy rich. The thieves brought in to steal the scroll must not only deceive the monks but also fight each other to obtain and deliver the scroll to his or her master.

This is classic wuxia. The action takes place in the scenic mountain hideaway of a monastery during the Ming dynasty with themes of corruption, greed, and spirituality. Martial arts dominate the action and it is choreographed like a ballet. As this was made in 1979, you will not see the sophistication that was employed in later wuxia films like the thrilling “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” of 2000, but the elements are all there.

Feng Hsu as White Fox in “Raining in the Mountain.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement Classics.

Although all the plot points are recognizable and the twists can be seen coming long before they occur, the pleasure in watching this film are in its pace, action, stunning locations, and even its stereotypic characters. Foremost among these delights is the incomparable Feng Hsu as White Fox. Hsu had a relatively short but very successful acting career in wuxia films. Her first film in 1967 was King Hu’s blockbuster “Dragon Inn” and she left acting for producing in 1981. Her physical air of innocence contrasts beautifully with the evil of her intent. But more importantly, she brings a comedic touch to the action that keeps the viewer engaged and interested in what will come next even with the too-recognizable plot points.

I’m not exactly sure what a 2K restoration is as the color is often a bit blurry, the sound is un-nuanced, and digital only emphasizes the hilariously bad mustache on the General. It still looks in every way imaginable like a 1970s television production but with better location shooting. Nevertheless, given the overall lack of the special effects that we’ve come to identify with this genre, Hu has made a film that is totally engaging and fun to watch. I suspect that this may have been recovered from the archives because it probably didn’t originally get released in China and its potential box office could benefit greatly in this time of limited content and the fact that Chinese theaters are open.

I still can’t pinpoint why I enjoyed this film so much, but I did. It’s not a genre I follow or even watch, and yet there was something compelling about seeing the martial arts being choreographed like a modern ballet. And of course, there was Feng Hsu.

Opening Friday, November 6 via Virtual Cinema.


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