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)

Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom (三八新娘憨子婿, Hsin Chi, 1967)

Even in the Taiwan of 1967 things were changing but not perhaps as quickly as elsewhere. Hsin Chi’s delightful “taiyupian” Taiwanese-language screwball rom-com Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom (三八新娘憨子婿) is a fairly late take on the arranged marriage vs love match debate which, perhaps surprisingly given the increasing conservatism of the era, comes down firmly on the side of the youngsters’ right to choose even while subtly poking fun at them for being naive and irresponsible, unable to forge independent lives for themselves and expecting the older generation to fix their mistakes while the parents eventually soften and in a sense free themselves from the oppressive values which defined their youths. 

As the film opens, grumpy father A-Kau (Chin Tu) is complaining that his pot is already boiling but his son Bun-ti (Shih Chun) has not yet returned with the rice he sent him out to get. That’s because Bun-ti has taken the opportunity of the errand to meet up with his girlfriend, Kui-ki (Chin Mei), who is also out on an errand having been sent grocery shopping by her mother (Yang Yue-fan). The pair can only meet on occasions such as these because their overly possessive parents refuse to let them leave the house without good reason and firmly disapprove of romantic relationships. 

In an amusing reversal of accepted gender norms, it’s A-Kau who plays the wounded widower, afraid that some young woman is coming to steal away his son and then there’ll be no one to look after him. Nevertheless, he’s simultaneously proud of his son’s popularity with the opposite sex despite describing him as having a “ladies curse” which he attributes to a constant need for female affection caused by the early death of his mother when he was only a few months old. In a running gag, the house is frequently beset by the young women of the neighbourhood pushing notes through the window and demanding to see the handsome young man. A-kau’s solution is to literally shut his son away by having the windows boarded over despite the carpenter’s cautioning that most people are looking for more ventilation, not less. 

Kui-ki’s mother, by contrast, is a much feistier figure directly telling her daughter that she’s no wish to meet her boyfriend because marriage is a matter for the parents. A-Kau later says something similar, concerned that “love heats up fast but often cools”, believing perhaps that an arranged marriage can provide greater longterm stability and is no more likely to fail than a love match. As we later discover, however, the parents’ animosity is rooted in youthful tragedy. In a staggering coincidence, it turns out that they were once young lovers like Bun-ti and Kui-ki who wanted to marry but fell foul of parental disapproval. Each accuses the other “abandonment”, but the cause is found to lie with A-Kau who, like Bun-ti, failed to be “resolute in love”, refusing to fight for Kui-ki’s mother and simply backing off when her father told him he wasn’t good enough. His own father then apparently forced him into the arranged marriage which produced Bun-ti while Kui-ki’s mother held out for a few years and was then forced into an arranged marriage herself. The pair of them fail to see the parallels with their children’s romance and have over invested in the idea of properness in traditional values in an attempt to ease the pain and disappointment of being denied the right to marry the person they loved. 

On recognising A-Kau, Kui-ki’s mother chases him out of the house with a broom and vetos the marriage, causing the young couple to elope to Taipei in an attempt to escape their parents’ authority. Each of them is sorry, but still wedded to their position as parental authorities, too proud to cede ground and simply give their blessing to the union to get their kids to come home. In an echo of an earlier scene in which he went on the prowl looking for Bun-ti, A-Kau roams the local park and spots young couples everywhere some of them engaging in public displays of affection which one might have assumed would have annoyed the censors. He’s approached first by a disabled beggar who explains that he, like Bun-ti, did not listen to his parents and eloped to Taipei with a woman they wouldn’t let him marry. But he couldn’t find work, went broke, and became ill. Finally she left him, and he’s too ashamed of his filial failure to go home which is why he’s begging in this park. A-Kau seems to find vindication rather than a warning in the story, glad to hear the young man admit that his parents were right rather than fearful that the same will happen to Bun-ti if he does not eventually accept his decision to marry. Later, a young couple approach him looking distressed, offering to sell the woman’s coat for money to elope. Feeling sorry A-kau gives them twice as much as they asked for and drops the coat behind him as he leaves, but then gives a long and painful lecture reflecting on his plight and encouraging the young couple to go home, “your filial duty is to avoid worrying your parents” he goes on. The young couple eventually make a sneaky escape while he’s turned around mid-monologue, rejecting his melancholy defence of feudal patriarchy. 

Meanwhile, in the city, Bun-ti and Kui-ki have got what looks to be a rather nice apartment together and are living it large but we later discover that they’re months behind on their rent (not to mention the rice bill) and the reality of their situation is beginning to place a strain on their relationship. He accuses of her of being a spendthrift, wanting to go out for dinner and a movie on a Sunday when they owe so much money already, while she blames him for failing to provide. In a strange and uncomfortable defence of domestic violence, Bunt-ti and Kui-ki chance on an apparently happily married couple making a spectacle of themselves during their weekly bout of fighting after which they both emerge bloody and bruised but seemingly cheerful after having worked out all their frustrations. Bun-ti and Kui-ki decide to try it for themselves and find that it works, later getting into a blazing row caused by Bun-ti’s staying out late drinking without phoning home. 

This last argument which signals the failure of their attempt to live as independent adults in the modern city leads to an intervention from the district chief/landlord and rice merchant, each of them instructing the creditors to call their parents to settle the debts. Ah-kau and Kui-ki’s mother dutifully arrive, launching a mini trial to discover who’s at fault including a full reconstruction of the events of the previous night which results in another violent fight after which the couple threaten to break up and marry other people only to reconcile while A-Kau and Kui-ki’s mother are then forced to deal with their “grudge” and end up getting engaged.

“Parents don’t understand the way young people do things” Kui-ki had explained, but they are eventually compelled to shift ground as they take back what was taken from them in finally being allowed to marry. Hsin doesn’t let anyone off the hook, neither the naive and feckless lovers nor their embittered parents whose hurt eventually turns into an unexpected opera duet as they rehash the failure of their youthful romance. He does however leave room for an unambiguously happy ending in which, ironically, the traditional family is repaired but only in its subversion as the young lovers are validated in their desire for love and freedom while A-Kau abandons the patriarchal order by assuming the role of the bride, carried in a palanquin to Kui-ki’s mother’s house wearing a veil, as he removes himself from his son’s family and surrenders his authority to his new wife in affirmation of a new social order struggling to be born in the increasingly repressive martial law era. 


Remaster trailer (English/Traditional Chinese 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)