Tuesday, January 30, 2024


This is part of a series I started when working on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, reviewing wuxia films and discussing their relevance to tabletop RPGs. I am a little rusty on these written reviews and my last one was a little long winded, so I am going to aim for brevity on this one. 

If you want to bring wuxia to your RPG table, try Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades or Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. 

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.  

This review contains many spoilers.

Raining in the Mountain is a 1979 Taiwanese film directed and written by King Hu and filmed in South Korea. It is something of a companion piece to Legend of the Mountain, which was filmed in the same year and location. The movie stars Hsu Feng (White Fox), Tung Lin (Chiu Ming), Sun Yueh (Esquire Wen An), Paul Chun Pui (Hui Ssu), Shih Chun (Hui Tung), Tien Feng (General Wang), Wu Chia-Hsiang (Master Wu Wai), and Chin Chang-Ken (the Abbot). Ng Ming-Choi, who also plays Chin Suo in the movie, did the action choreography and martial arts direction. 

Raining in the Mountain was not the movie I expected. Especially after seeing the King Hu films leading up to this one, I had thought it would be much heavier on the action. Instead it is much more dialogue and intrigue driven. Set in a remote temple in the mountains, the Abbot has invited three patrons (a general, a lay buddhist and a wealthy landowner) to visit prior to his retirement and help him choose a successor. But this temple houses an original copy of an ancient sutra that some of these people want for themselves. And it also is home to monks scheming for the position of head Abbot. One of the Abbot's guests has brought thieves to do his dirty work and steal the sutra.  

The temple setting feels very real. It strikes an interesting balance of reverence for the Buddhist ideas, but respect for making the people in the temple very earthbound and fallible. One of the delightful things about the movie is you never know quite who to root for. And you aren't ever fully invested in rooting against anyone. Different characters at different points display virtue and vice. There are certainly some characters who stand above that, but it takes time to know who they truly are and even the most nefarious characters in the movie gain our sympathy when they meet an untimely demise. 

And Hu provides an interesting array of people that kept me invested. While there are lofty and virtuous characters, most of the main protagonists are scoundrels. It reminded me a bit of Duel for Gold in that sense. Part of this I am sure is due to the premise of a heist set in a temple. 

The characters are sharply drawn and memorable. It is a movie filled with thieves, plotting monks, ex-convicts and corrupt officials. But they are also colorful. One character for example is an exemplary lay Buddhist, named Master Wu Wai, who has come to help advise the Abbot to choose his successor and one of the characters observes he is so immune to desires of the flesh that he surrounds himself with a retinue of beautiful attendants*. It is unclear initially to the viewer if he is truly so virtuous or if he is an "old lech" as White Fox suggests. 

Other movies by King Hu, such as A Touch of Zen, get into similar Chan Buddhist themes, but Raining in the Mountain felt particularly focused on the subject. At times I found it to be quite moving on that level, and highly effective. In A Touch of Zen the spiritual theme of the film is largely conveyed through action and broad strokes of the story, here it is done primarily through the characters. 

But it is also a movie about the corruption of institutions, political, social and religious. And it levels a critique at the pretensions of virtue and holiness. There is a well done scene with a large group of monks being led in meditation on a river, as the Wu Wai's attendants bathe nearby. There is sharp cutting back and forth between the women bathing themselves and the monks desperate reactions as they can't help but catch a glimpse, until they are admonished by Master Wu Wai's gaze. And this is the just the most minor and humorous aspect of the human failings taking place within the sangha. We see monks plotting against rivals, helping thieves steel a priceless sutra in exchange for a recommendation as the Abbot's successor, smuggling food into the temple, and even planning murder. 

Ultimately the temple is a very human place with all the pettiness and political manipulation that entails. However there are characters who stand above this and prove more in tune with the teachings the temple promotes. Because so much of the film's effectiveness rests on discovering more about the characters, I don't want to spoil that with specifics here. But there is one figure who truly rises above the others and endeared himself to me. I found this interesting because he is actually quite aspirational, but it is all done within a film that is showing us the very human failings of this institution (so you never are quite sure if he is truly this pure). I don't know if it was intentional or not, but again I found some of the spiritual features of the movie, in particular through this character, to be quite touching at times. It also made me curious about Hu's aim with the film, something I won't pretend to have an answer for here/ He simply made me want to know more about what he thought as he made Raining on the Mountain and why he made it).

And ultimately no one seems above earthly considerations. Even one of the film's most noble character is subject to the realities of monastic politics when he must consider using the sacred sutra as collateral to take out a loan in order to satisfy a rebellion of monks tormented by one of his rivals. 

Yet in the end, what stood out to me was the way Hu handles the theme of atonement. It felt earnest and is the aspect of Raining in the Mountain I found most emotionally powerful. It is handled poignantly through the character of Chiu Ming, a convict sentenced to serve in the army who paid for a permit to become a monk. His character embodies most of the themes of the movie as well, as his backstory involves all the corruption seen on display at the temple, but he comes to best represent the teachings of the sacred sutra the thieves are after. I loved Tung Lin's performance he as it is subtle and believable. His character undergoes the biggest transformation in the film, and the change is evident while the essence of the character remains very much the same. He is changed but unchanged as his standing in the temple shifts over time. And the actor and camera together capture this transformation perfectly. 

I also felt this with the White Fox character played by Hsu Feng. She is less noble than Chiu Ming, but interesting because she is a thief who finds a certain amount of redemption. Much of the time we see her leaping and rushing through the halls of the temple seeking to steal the sutra, but every so often she sees or hears something that gives her pangs of conscience and she takes more noble actions. There seems to be an awakening of morality in the character, that restrains but never defeats her greed. In a way her story is a parallel to Chiu Ming's in that they were both once apprehended the same official, but whereas Chiu Ming is not guilty, yet reformed, she is guilty but begins a process of reformation by the end of the film. At least that was my impression of things. I think Raining on the Mountain is the sort of movie that lends itself well to discussion and debate about the characters and what it all meant. I could see other people having very different reads on each of the characters. 

The movie does require patient viewing. It isn't as long as some other King Hu films, but it takes time to unfold the story, and much of the story is told at a leisurely pace. I rather enjoyed this aspect of it because I like Kung Hu's use the screen. 

While martial arts feature into the story, it would be misleading to call this a martial arts film in the normal sense. Martial arts are involved, it takes place in a world that seems connected to the martial world, but the focus is really on an unfolding play of intrigue and awakening in a temple. Because of the location, the martial artists present must use restraint. So much of what occurs on temple grounds revolves around movement, leaping, bounding and chasing. There are also some exchanges of blows but most of these are light, with the exception of one clumsy attempt at murder. There is a wit to many of these action sequences, and their lightness makes for pleasant viewing. 

Once they leave the temple, there is an extended chase-fight in the forest and here things become more grave. It makes for a more shocking transition to have most of the fights preceding this feel lower stakes, more like polite slap battles over the sutra. While the body count of this movie is low, and there are probably far more leaps and jumps than punches and kicks, it manages to be more discomforting than if there were dozens or hundreds dead by the end. Sometimes one or two deaths lends more impact to the violence. 

There is something gentle about King Hu movies I quite like in terms of movement. And I don't quite know how to express it clearly in words, but a lot of the movie feels processional, in a very literal sense. Characters walk a lot and move. And it isn't boring to watch them do so. It helps you get a sense of place and the flow makes for some of the more fantastic looking shots. 

Raining in the Mountain is a beautiful film. King Hu not only directed but did the art design and film editing. Every frame feels well composed and elements like the costuming really stand out. The costumes are remarkable not just for the color contrast they provide (there are some amazing scenes with dozens of praying monks that are captivating for this reason) but for the sense of weight and movement they create. In some of the action sequences, especially the ones involving stealth, the flow and look of the robes are so perfect and enhance everything. The whole movie just looks perfectly arranged by the director. 

This is probably not a movie that everyone will enjoy. If you come seeking something action packed, this probably won't be your cup of tea, but if you don't mind something a little more subdued, more focused on drama and intrigue, with action on the periphery and in the finale, then this might be a film you would like. Personally I like Raining in the Mountain a lot. I do recommend it. While I normally do like  a lot of action, the effectiveness of the intrigue and the love I developed for the characters, made me more invested in the finale. I found I had to watch and rewatch it after seeing it, so for me that is definitive with a movie. 

This movie has so much a GM can draw from, which was a surprise to me, as I usually get more broad inspiration for adventures from King Hu. But here you will find the attention to the inner workings of a temple, its politics, the thieves come to rob an ancient sutra and the manner in which the sutra is guarded and protected to all be helpful. This could very easily be turned into a scenario and done from a variety of angles. 

The first thing I find useful is the physical culture of the movie. You get a real sense of how the temple scripture hall is laid out, how books are stored, how the doors are locked, guarded, etc. For any adventure involving the potential theft of a manual or sacred scripture, this provides a strong blueprint for the necessary elements and challenges. 

You also get a clear impression of the temple geography. And this would be very useful I think to any GM trying to turn a map or picture of a temple into something more lived in. It also provides a sense of some of the more byzantine structures within the temple that could be used for exploration purposes. 

On top of that, the movie brings the temple to life with its politics and the intrigue around the appointing of a new Abbot. This is something that could certainly be a backdrop for an adventure. I also think the emphasis on everything occurring in a sacred place where bloodshed must be avoided. It can enable characters to have conflicts with opponents where they have to rely more on deception and wits, and any fighting needs to be done bloodlessly and with care. 

And of course it has the Sutra as the central object of desire. A wuxia heist adventure, or a wuxia sutra protecting adventure is certainly something you could get watching this movie. 

*I wasn't sure if these were nuns, but they are called such in the commentary track so I will use that language in this review. I am assuming they are lay nuns but I don't know enough about the topic. 

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