Raining in the Mountain (空山靈雨, King Hu, 1979)

Is it truly possible to retreat from the world and live a pure life free of Earthly desires? Perhaps not, at least not entirely as the monks of King Hu’s joyously comic wuxia Raining in the Mountain (空山靈雨, Kōng Shān Líng Yǔ) later discover in attempting to cure the corruption already eating through their ranks. The old abbot is ill and mindful that his time is short, recruits a series of advisors to help him pick a successor to steer the monastery in his absence yet whether he too is plotting or not there is intrigue at play and not everyone’s motives are strictly spiritual. 

The film opens with Hu’s trademark immersion in the beauty of nature as three pilgrims approach a mountain temple yet there’s something almost suspicious in their manner as they’re met by the abbot’s reliable righthand man, Hui Ssu (Paul Chun Pui). Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh), a wealthy merchant and frequent donor, introduces the woman with him as his concubine, the man obviously a servant given that he’s carrying their pack. Wen has, however, an ulterior motive in that he’s come with the intention of stealing a unique scroll featuring the Mahayana Sutra in the hand of Xuanzang/Tripitaka of Journey to the West fame. The woman is no concubine but a famous thief, White Fox (Hsu Feng), who wastes no time at all before changing into her best sneaking clothes and reuniting with the servant, her minion Chin Suo (Wu Ming-Tsai), to try and break into the sutra room. 

They are not however alone in their endeavours. The abbot has also invited local police chief General Wang (Tien Feng) and his underling Chang Cheng (Chen Hui-Lou) who nominally favour monk Hui Tung (Shih Chun) for the position of abbot but are also there largely with the intention of getting their hands on the scroll which Hui Tung has pledged to give them if he wins. Likewise, though it seems Esquire Wen had forgotten to brief White Fox, rival candidate Hui Wen (Lu Chan) is also in league with them. Just as it looks as if this duality is about to implode, the introduction of a third party, former convict Chiu Ming (Tung Lin) who claims he was framed by Chang Cheng because his family refused to sell him a precious scroll, creates additional uncertainty in the race for succession. 

Secluded in the mountains, the temple ought to be a refuge of enlightenment free from spiritual corruption in its isolation from Earthly desires. Even so, we’re told that the most holy man is the third advisor, Wu Wai (Wu Chia-Hsiang), a Buddhist lay preacher who arrives with a massive entourage of colourfully dressed handmaidens and is said to be “immune to sensual pleasures”. He favours no particular candidate, but acts as a spiritual sounding board at the right hand of the abbot who may or may not be aware that his other two advisors have ulterior motives, or that corruption is already rife in the monastery. Aside from the power-hungry machinations of Hui Wen and Hui Tung, who is so desperate for the position he later consents to murder on temple grounds, many of the younger monks have been bribing a pedlar to smuggle in meat and wine for them, literally passing it over the fence, and not even paying him properly. They are also tested perhaps deliberately by Wu Wai who has his handmaidens frolic in the water where the monks are supposed to be meditating, many of them unable to maintain concentration.  

Yet these are only partial incursions, the monastery is not entirely isolated from the wider society by virtue of its financial dependency. Wu Wai who lives on the outside seems to be fantastically wealthy (still it seems clinging on to material desires), yet the temple is dependent on donations from men like Esquire Wen or else on alms giving. On her arrival, White Fox disdainfully rejects the meal she’s offered and describes the place as a dump, her complaints apparently not unfounded as a ruse to raise rebellion by staging a protest about the the low quality of the catering strikes a genuine note of discord with the monks. The solution posited by the new abbot, opting for austerity rather than opulence, is to tell the young monks they’ve had it too easy and now it’s time they shift for themselves by aiming to become self-sufficient growing their own veg (and thereby lessening their contact with worldly corruption). 

In any case, they cannot purify the temple while the temptation of the scroll exists. “Priceless” to General Wang and Esquire Wen, to the abbot and interestingly to White Fox, the scroll is “worthless” merely a raggedy bit of old paper with no intrinsic value. Yet hoping to raise revenue, the new abbot is advised to borrow on its collateral by the duplicitous Esquire Wen and thereby is forced to accept its “worth” in the secular world perhaps only then realising that if the temple wishes to finalise its divorce the scroll has to go. Essentially a morality tale, Hu hints at the absurdity of these petty corruptions in the cartoonish, farcical shenanigans of the rival thieves as they dance around each other silently fighting over a “worthless” scroll the camera following them with a wry eye while the constant drumming of the background score lends a note of ever present tension. Almost everyone, it seems, is redeemable for the path to enlightenment should be available to all though those who choose not to follow it may find the way of corruption leads to only one destination. 


Raining in the Mountain streams in the US until Sept. 28 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

A Touch of Zen (俠女, King Hu, 1971)

“A man has his code” a late villain explains in King Hu’s radical Buddhist wuxia epic, A Touch of Zen (俠女, Xiá Nǚ), justifying his villainy with weary fatalism as a matter dictated by the world in which he lives and of which he is merely a passive conduit. Based on a story by Pu Songling, Hu’s meandering tale begins as gothic horror yet ends in enlightenment parable that in itself reflects the values of Jianghu as a warrior monk achieves nirvana in the apotheosis of his righteousness. 

Hu begins however with slowly mounting tension as lackadaisical scholar Gu Shengzhai (Shih Chun) begins to notice something strange going on in the sleepy rural backwater where he lives. There are several strangers in town from the recently arrived pharmacist Dr Lu (Xue Han), to the blind fortune teller Shi (Bai Ying), and a young man who stops into his shop to have a portrait done (Tien Peng) but is behaving somewhat suspiciously. Shengzhai has also noticed unexpected activity at a house opposite his long thought to be “haunted”, activity which turns out to be caused by a young woman, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), living in penury with her bedridden mother. 

Shengzhai is often described as feckless or immature, his mother (Zhang Bing-yu) constantly complaining that he refuses to take the civil service exam and has stubbornly wasted his life with “pointless” study while they live harsh lives with little comfort. Shengzhai is, however, an unconventional jianghu hero who has rejected a world of courtly corruption in order to live by his own principles even if that means a poor but honest existence. In a sense he becomes a man through his brief relationship with Yang who turns out to be a noblewoman on the run from the East Chamber after being sentenced to death because of her father’s attempt to expose the corruption of a high ranking eunuch. After he and Yang enjoy a single night of passion in the middle of a thunderstorm, Shengzhai becomes determined to protect her and reveals he has spent much of his life studying military strategy, but he also fully accepts Yang’s agency and right dictate her future walking back his claim of feeling duty-bound because they are “almost married” to be content to help “even as a friend”. 

Nevertheless, there is something of boyish glee in the machinations of his trickery, repurposing the gothic horror of the “haunted” fort as a means to “demoralise” the enemy. His second antagonist, Men Da (Wang Rui), refuses to take the rumours, ably spread by Shengzhai’s gossipy mother panel to panel through a series of expanding split screens, seriously describing them as something only “ignorant country folk” would believe but later falls victims to Shengzhai’s elaborate setup. After his victory, Shengzhai walks through the fort laughing his head off playing with the lifeless mannequins he positioned as ghosts and idly tapping various traps and mechanisms, but it’s not until he leaves the ruined building and ventures outside that he realises the true cost of his childish game in the rows of bodies stretching out and around before realising Yang is nowhere to be found. Shengzhai becomes a man again, forced to accept the consequences of his actions, but also defiant, ignoring advice and instruction on leaving home in search of a woman who asked him not to look for her. 

As he later discovers, Yang and her retainer have renounced the world for a monastic life returning to the Buddhist temple in which Yang learned martial arts during her two years of exile under the all powerful master Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) who is now it seems close to achieving enlightenment though that won’t stop him helping Yang deal with her “unfinished business”. Like the heroes of jianghu, Yang removes herself from a world of infinite corruption though in this case to pursue spiritual enlightenment and thereafter forgoes her revenge, acting in defence only rather striking back at Eunuch Wei or the East Chamber. At the film’s conclusion, Hui Yang’s act of compassion brings about his betrayal but through it his enlightenment. Struck, he bleeds gold blood and sits atop a rocky outcrop as the sun radiates around his head in a clear evocation of his transcendence witnessed at a distance even by Shengzhai alone and placed once again in a traditionally feminine role literally left holding the baby but perhaps freed from the web of intrigue in which he had been trapped spun all around him just like that weaved by the spider in the film’s gothic opening. 

Stunningly capturing the beauty of the Taiwanese countryside with its ethereal rolling mists and sunlit forests, Hu’s composition takes on the aesthetic of a classic ink painting finding Shengzhai lost amid the towering landscape while eventually veering into the realms of the experimental in the transcendent red-tinted negative of spiritual transition. For Hu’s jianghu refugees, there can be no victory in violence only in the gradual path towards enlightenment born of true righteousness and human compassion.


A Touch of Zen streams in the US until Sept. 28 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International restoration trailer (English subtitles)

A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Tu Chun-Hsun, 1970)

“A young girl like you has to be careful” a well-meaning palanquin driver warns our heroine, little knowing that into the heart of danger is exactly where she means to go. Tu Chun-Hsun’s Taiwanese wuxia A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Lóngchéng Shí Rì) stars relative newcomer Hsu Feng immediately before her breakout role in King Hu’s A Touch of Zen as a noble Han Chinese revolutionary resisting Manchu oppression in the Song Dynasty bravely venturing into Dragon City currently in lockdown under the increasingly paranoid rule of its new magistrate, Lord Pu (Shih Chun). 

In 1131, “Jade Dragonfly” Shang Yen-Chih (Hsu Feng) leaves the mountain stronghold for Dragon City in order to rendezvous with Chen, a fellow revolutionary in possession of a plan book essential for the coming battle against the oppressive Manchu regime. As the palanquin drivers inform her, however, Chen, along with 80 members of his family, was executed for treason two days previously on orders of the new governor. The city is in a state of paranoid chaos that leaves the drivers unwilling to approach. Nevertheless, Yen-Chih is undaunted knowing she must get her hands on the book before it falls into the hands of the authorities. 

Tu conjures a world of tension and intrigue perfectly capturing the anxieties of Yen-chih’s undercover existence, painfully aware of each and every sound and always on the look out for trouble or betrayal as she wanders the paranoid city. Shortly before she arrives, a group of local men is brought in for questioning on the mere suspicion of visiting Chen’s grave, tainted by association and sent off to be tortured, bearing out the bearers’ assertion that Pu is a dangerously paranoid authoritarian intent on stamping out any and all dissent. If there’s a parallel to the White Terror here is it in implication only, but it’s presence is perhaps felt in the innate dangers of the world in which Yen-Chih now finds herself. In any case, she is perhaps in some instances protected by her appearance, written off as a genteel young woman in need of protection rather than a fearsome revolutionary able to leap tall walls in a single bound and endure days of torture never wavering in her mission. 

Meanwhile, Pu’s Manchu guards are universally corrupt. Yen-Chih makes a nervous entry into the city alarmed by a sudden cry of “freeze” only to realise the soldiers haven’t even noticed her, they are too busy gambling. Later they make a point of carting off her collaborator, tipped off by an obsequious informant hoping for advancement, and then ransacking his pharmacy, burning all his goods in the central square (which considering what they are might not be the best move), careful to pocket any valuables first. In such an atmosphere, perhaps it’s not surprising that Yen-Chih succeeds in finding unexpected allies, radicalising a young thief brought in, ironically, on suspicion of killing a spy she herself killed while they are both in prison. 

The Manchu regime and most particularly Pu’s deputy are indeed corrupt and oppressive, but as expected not quite everything is as we first assumed it to be. The ground constantly shifting beneath her feet, Yen-Chih chases the book but eventually discovers that she has been under a misapprehension as to its keepers and not only that, she’s also in the middle of someone else’s complicated revenge plot. The resolution though not exactly unexpected paves the way towards a surprisingly empathetic finale in which Yen-Chih is moved to discover the the extent to which a comrade has undertaken their duty, protecting her in facilitating her mission and allowing her to return to their shared cause with new hope while they remain behind alone in the increasingly destabilised environment of Dragon City the forces of Manchu for the moment seemingly turned against themselves. 

Breathtakingly tense, Tu’s anxious, low angle camera captures the sense of a city locked down by fear and paranoia while lending a ghostly air to the abandoned Chen estate where Yen-chih encounters its creepy butler before an intense showdown with Pu’s guards once again tipped off by their duplicitous informant. Boasting an extremely accomplished and charismatic performance from Hsu Feng as the intense swordswoman revolutionary and genuinely exciting choreography, A City Called Dragon is a forgotten gem of the ’70s Taiwanese wuxia boom.


A City Called Dragon streams in the UK 21st to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Dragon Inn (龍門客棧, King Hu, 1967)

Goodbye Dragon inn posterCorruption invades the court, the innocent flee the city but are pursued. Able to run no more, they take refuge at a point of hospitality where they encounter the jaded forces of justice who eventually offer themselves as a human shield, protecting the precious seed of a new world while beating back the evil of the old. It is the archetypical wuxia plot, but never better told than in King Hu’s (Hu Jinquan) seminal Dragon Inn (龍門客棧, Lóng Mén Kè Zhàn).

The first Taiwanese production from Mainlander Hu who began his career at Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, Dragon Inn is set in feudal China. A weak emperor has enabled the rise of an ambitious underclass of eunuchs – once trusted servants whose forced celibacy supposedly ensured loyalty because, having no children, they would have no interest in dynasty. A loyalist scholar is about to pay the price for the eunuchs’ rise when they have him executed for treason as a means of silencing his rebellion. Fearing reprisals from his still young children, they exile them to the far frontiers as a ruse to disguise their murders on the road. Fortunately, however, the Yu children are saved by the heroic intervention of wandering swordsmen. Hoping to head them off at the next pass, the villainous Cao (Bai Ying) sends his best men to Dragon Inn where they will lie in wait.

Obviously, Cao’s plan is not to work out quite as he intended. Firstly because of the arrival of ultra cool swordsman for hire Xiao (Shi Jun), who happens to be a friend of the temporarily absent innkeeper Wu, and then because of the wandering bandit Zhu Ji and his sister (currently dressed as a man) Hui (Shang Kuan Ling‐Feng), who are determined to cause trouble with the East Espionage Chamber who are currently occupying the inn by means of force. In order to minimise the possibility of resistance, EEC have also wiped out a local company of Tartar soldiers, seemingly indifferent to any diplomatic incident which might ensue. Xiao, Wu, Ji, and Hui, are eventually joined by a pair of Tartar defectors who were pressed into the EEC after pledging their loyalty to Yu, and thereafter commit themselves to ensuring the safety of Yu’s offspring as a means of protecting his legacy while facing off against the corrupt forces of Cao.

Like all wandering heroes, Xiao and the others are mainly concerned with the problem at hand, saving the Yus, rather than acknowledging that their present predicament is a product of the society in which they live. They do not challenge “authority”, but only minor corruption as embodied in the upstart Cao who has attempted to step beyond his station. Cao is, however, himself a victim of his society as Xiao almost seems to admit in his cruel taunting of him over his complicated liminal status as a castrated man. Xiao repeatedly mocks his lack of appendage and his (presumed) lack of sexual experience coupled with his inability to father children which places him well outside the demands of regular society in being unable to carry on his family line. Cao’s usurping ambition is then a kind of revenge born of frustration and resentment against a society which has placed a deliberate limit on his progress.

Still, his villainy knows no bounds – not only did he have a “good”, innocent man sent to his death, but he also dared to call for the murder of his still small children solely to secure his own position. Of course, this inevitably means that the fault lies with the “weak” emperor whose softness has enabled the wicked ambition of men like Cao who have simply stepped into a vacuum created by insufficiently robust government (an idea perhaps born of the same kind of social values which have corrupted Cao). Nevertheless, our heroes are nominally loyalists rising in support of the fallen Yu in an attempt to rescue his legacy in the form of his children. Outlaws all, they have their wanderers code and even if their first meeting may be strained, they are quick to recognise each other as fighters for justice even if by virtue of being among those who’ve chosen to live outside of the systems of corruption which define their world. The tale ends as they always do, but it does so with an ambivalent sense of triumph in acknowledgement of the hollowness of moral victory in a world still defined by corruption and injustice.


Dragon Inn screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)