When you hear stories of directors using the same sets, locations and actors for two movies on the bounce, the sort of names that would fit the bill belong in the same conversation as Roger Corman and his peers. This is not what you should expect to learn about King Hu, nonetheless here he is, he shot Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain back to back with the same cast of regulars you can find throughout his entire body of work in the same area of South Korea in the same, beautiful ancient monastery. Where King Hu differs here from the aforementioned Corman is the class of the productions, Hu is regarded as one of the grandmasters of martial arts cinema, pre-dating the boom of Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers international successes. Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain may both centre around the McGuffin of a scroll, and feature the same players and locales, yet the films themselves couldn’t be more different. Legend is a fantasy movie featuring malevolent spirits and magical powers, Raining is equal parts heist picture to steal the scriptural text of “The Mahayana Sutra”, hand-copied by Tripitaka and part process to see who will be the successor of the current dying abbot.
Newly issued by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label with a directors commentary by the always good value for money Tony Rayns and a visual essay from David Cairns, Raining in the Mountain continues the UK label’s King Hu project to release his body of work to the UK blu-ray market. Earlier more mainstream titles have seen the light of day, either through the aforementioned Eureka or 88 films who chimed in with their release of Come Drink with Me – not to be confused with the similarly titled British TV dine-em-up.
With the release of this and its sibling, we are well into the outliers of his body of work. Much of his earlier, more famous, work played out like traditional martial arts cinema only more epic in its values as afforded by them being shot on location in Taiwan. Hu’s relationship with martial arts is to avoid employing it like his peers in Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. Those two shaw brothers directors employed fights in a way where you’d never go more than 20 minutes without seeing someone throw down. Here, you are talking maybe 5 minutes of fights. Another aspect of the martial arts film is incredibly convoluted plotting that tends to invoke the history of China and its many dynasties and civil wars, again, another way in which Hu diverts.
Raining on the Mountain is a film from a legendary voice of the martial arts genre that has a meagre plot and little fighting. The resultant film is a slow one, if you are to use those parameters, however, if you address the film by its own rules it moves at quite a rate. While no one may be fighting that doesn’t mean that there is no movement, the cast never sits still with all the separate parties skulking, running, dipping and diving around this lavish historical complex giving the cinematographer Henry Chan ample opportunity to experiment. All King Hu movies are gorgeous on the pure premise of the locations and wide-angle lenses he uses, capturing the full majesty of Taiwan (South Korea, in this case) and its historical landscapes. While it would be imprecise to describe this as anything other than slow, however, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a feast for the eyes somewhere in the mix.
The two most famous faces that feature in Raining in the Mountain are Hsu Feng (in most of King Hu’s film, most famously, however, in A Touch of Zen) and Tien Feng (again, worked with Hu a lot but also famous for King Boxer & Fist of Fury) and both play interesting roles. Hsu Feng is White Fox, a female thief and the moral centre of the film whose character goes through the most development and growth, yet, we also see her engage in the most combat throughout. Her fights involve trying to steal something in scrambles where all the would-be thieves are trying to ply their trade whilst also avoiding detection. Tien Feng may not feature as prominently as he would appear to at first. He is a military man attending the succession event hoping to benefit from either the theft of the priceless script or whoever the next Abbott might be and the number of times he changes plans makes him appear far weaker than his lavish dress and opinion of himself implies. Interestingly, his lieutenant Cheng Chang (Kuang Yu Wang) emerges from his shadow to become the biggest threat.
This is the outlook that much of Hu’s script adopts, a character is introduced and given their station you’d expect one thing of them only for events to reveal a different aspect to their mission in this isolated monastery with either fatal or life-changing consequences. This plays into the dual themes of who is and isn’t deserving of power, with the truly deserving accepting Buddhism into their lives whereas those who don’t aren’t so lucky.
In his early career, King Hu made some of the most definitive martial arts films ever made whether that is the best epic China ever produced within that cannon – A Touch of Zen or one of the all-time greats in Dragon Inn. As Cairns goes on to discuss in his visual essay, Hu struggled to get films made after the international success of Bruce Lee as the thing which audiences demanded changed almost overnight. Gone was the interest in the patient, character-driven dramas that just so happened to have action set pieces in them, and in their place more visceral, internationally accessible movies fronted by the likes of Lee and Gordon Liu. After that cut off you can see Hu double down on what made his films tick. His later films are slower, more patient and much more likely to lean into Chinese history, mythology and mysticism and the double bill he produced over the course of a year in South Korea are emblematic of this evolution. As such, the audience who would get the most of Eureka’s newest entrant to the Masters of Cinema stable changes. This is no longer for those seeking the action thrills contained in Dragon Inn instead cutting closer to the work of Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul; a directorial voice as alluring as it is alienating.