Raining in the Mountain: Scrolling, by David Bax
King Hu’s 1979 Raining the Mountain was shot in and around the stunning Bulguksa Buddhist temple in the verdant South Korea countryside. A lengthy renovation of the temple had only been completed a handful of years prior and it would later go on to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hu’s story (he also wrote the screenplay) does pay some respect to the Buddhist religion and those who practice it faithfully but, for the most part and to the film’s benefit, he uses the beautiful, sprawling and varied location as an unendingly interesting backdrop for his fleetfooted schemers and killers to run around and interact with.
During the Ming Dynasty, a few high-ranking men of society gather at a temple to help the respected, aged abbot (Kim Chang-Gean) choose a successor from among the ranks of monks who live on the grounds. There are political machinations as men like General Wang (Tien Feng) and Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh) work the angles to get their favored monks the nod. But there are also ulterior motives to the visit, as Wen has brought along a hired thief, White Fox (Hsu Feng), disguised as his concubine, to steal a priceless scroll from the temple’s locked library when no one’s looking.
Film Movement is releasing a restored Raining in the Mountain in virtual cinemas. Taken mostly from the original negative and a handful of supplemental prints where needed, the picture looks crisp enough that some shots may as well have been taken yesterday.
That’s not the same as saying the movie looks fantastic, only that the restorers did a good job. Actually, much of cinematographer Henry Chan’s lighting is flat and functional with a look that would have been suited to the television fare of the time. On the other hand, Chan and Hu (best known for classics like A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn) excel at framing and blocking, moving the camera gracefully but only when called for.
Much of Raining in the Mountain feels as effortlessly swift and meticulous as White Fox herself, darting and leaping unseen through the temple on her way to the scroll room. For healthy stretches of screen time, this is a heist movie, with long, tense, hushed sequences of people engaged in dangerous sneakery.
But, of course, Hu is best known as a director of wuxia films like those mentioned above. Raining in the Mountain is economical with its action, doling out quick skirmishes here and there. But that’s only on the way to its finale, a killer, full-on wuxia set-piece featuring numerous skilled fighters bounding, slashing and kicking through a picturesque forest. It’s so good it’s practically a spiritual experience.