By Tony Williams.

The spiritual is always a marginal element in Hu’s films that deal with the eruption of violent forces attempting to dominate others before some temporary victory occurs, leaving the survivors to live and fight another day….”

This is the last of Eureka’s King Hu DVDs available for me to cover at the moment, though I hope to see future announcements of Anger (1970) and The Wheel of Life (1983), anthologies containing short episodes that pale in cinematic style in comparison with his contemporary peers, something Stephen Teo has urged in his chapter on the director’s work in his definitive study.1 Hu is definitely a “master of cinema” whose work needs to be further appreciated and disseminated to those audiences still unware of his work. His significant achievements embody the best elements of cinematic art in terms of photography, location, acting setting, movement, and sound. While located within a specific cultural and historical context, his work is accessible to all viewers.

Raining in the Mountain [Kong shan ling yu] | Eureka

Described by Tony Rayns in his audio-commentary as the director’s “last great film”, a comment relevant to coherent and comprehensive artistry, Raining is set in the early Ming Dynasty and not entirely concerned with spiritual affairs but rather the director’s perennial fascination with the conflict between ideology and reality, where barriers blur into a visual and rational world of contradictory opposites. If Hu initially intended his Dragon Gate Inn (1967) as a satire on then then popular James Bond film, locating his spies in the Eunuch dominated world of the Ming Dynasty not only evoked references to an earlier era, when spies were not so glamorous as Sean Connery (1930-2020), but ruthless and vicious executioners of an inhumane system. Parallels to the turbulent world of Mainland China were also evident in a series of films whereby the director combined historical references, cinematic painterly landscapes revealing his interests in calligraphy and painting, as well as the evolution of his own form of martial arts with choreography derived from Beijing Opera (he has the the aid of martial arts choreographic collaborators such as Han Ying-jie, 1927-1991, and Sammo Hung, 1952 –   ). Hu described the film as having little to do with Buddhism. “I wanted to explore the question of power, whether it constituted the means or the end, and I let it all happen in a monastery.”2

In this film, Hu again explores what he believes is his better “correct handling of contradictions” far more creatively and intuitively than Chairman Mao with his Little Red Book. The film opens with breathtaking scenes of the South Korean landscape, where the film was shot due to its many period Buddhist temples still in existence. A group of supposed pilgrims make their journey through a beautiful aesthetic landscape shot in the most evocative parallels with traditional Chinese painting. Surely, this is another example of “A Touch of Zen”. But those familiar with the director’s work fully know that spiritual is always a marginal element in the films that deal with the eruption of violent forces attempting to dominate others before some temporary victory occurs, leaving the survivors to live and fight another day. We soon learn that this harmonious group comprises Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh) who has two notorious thieves with him, White Fox (Hsu Feng) and Gold Lock (Wu Ming-tsai) to aid him in his plan to steal a priceless Buddhist manuscript. An opposing team also arrives comprised of General Wang (Tien Feng) and unscrupulous official Master Wu Mai (Wu Chia-hsiang) who has already unjustly railroaded prospective monk Chiu-Ming (Tung-lin) recently released from prison. The older Abbot is retiring and the unspiritual monks form factions to support particular candidates whom the outside visitors also want to influence to acquire the priceless document either openly or by stealth. Among these manipulate monks is Lu Chun, usually know for more positive roles in Hu’s films.

Raining in the Mountain' Review: A Martial Arts Gem From 1979 - The New  York Times

Although the Chinese checkers/chessboard is never displayed in this film unlike in Dragon Gate Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan, and The Valiant Ones, it forms the metaphorical equivalent of a Lacanian “structured absence.” This film displays Hu’s unique talent for moves and countermoves whether in his multi-dimensional employment of martial arts, planned and failed strategies, the resolution and non-resolution of problems, and endings that deliberately deny the logical plausibility of each plot such as Roy Chiao’s physical and spiritual transcendence at the end of A Touch of Zen, and the new Abbot’s decision to resolve the material issues raised by the presence of the valuable Tripitaka  by ensuring its eternal survival. (I will save the editor from inserting a “spoiler’s alert” here by being deliberately ambiguous as to the nature of this resolution. Wilkie Collins also complains about this tendency by reviewers in his introduction to his 1861 The Woman in White). As Rayns aptly points out, despite its location, this is less of a Buddhist film but more a response to human corruption and greed in the history of Buddhism. It is a slant to which the director gives particular emphasis.

Fully aware of the flaws of his fellow monks while a newly installed novice, the future successful candidate not only begins to change the monastery’s organization but also neatly resolves the problem to the consternation of General Wang who, in one way, gets what he wants but not in the manner expected. The expression of the face of a character played by the future Lee Khan is worth the price of admission. If a convict can change so can the humiliated White Fox, who does so on her way to becoming a novice. Rayns makes this clear and David Cairns, in his video essay accompanying the set, is mistaken by thinking the cutting of her hair is a form of punishment, since Chiu-ming has earlier undergone this process as he makes his way up the monastery hierarchy. Raining in the Mountain is a film of great sophisticated visual expertise whose constant plot changes also match the different elements of the director’s visual style employed in this key work.

A work of this nature demands appropriate critical accompaniment. Eureka has supplied this with Tony Rayn’s informative audio-commentary with its analytic and insightful observations. Cairns’s otherwise interesting video essay argues that Hu needs to be thought of as more of an artist than craftsman, something evident to those of us who have seen his films over the decades. But there are always heathens needing conversion as well as younger audiences who need to discover that cinema was not as bad as so much of it is now.

Finally, an exemplary booklet with archive photos accompanies this standard DVD/Blu-ray edition with essays by Rayns, Teo, and David West. For various reasons, this review was long delayed, but I’d urge readers not to delay and obtain this and other King Hu work available in these excellent Eureka editions. 


1. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. London: BFI Publishing, 1997, p.87.

2 .Teo, “Raining in the Mountain.” Transcending the Times: King Hu and Eileen Chang. The 22nd Hong Kong International Film Festival. Ed. Law Kar. 1998, p. 180.

Tony Williams is an independent critic and Contributing Editor to Film International.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *