Sunday, June 15, 2014

King Hu at BAM: Raining in the Mountain

It is a temple, not an inn, but the principles are the same for King Hu. A motley cast of characters have duly assembled to hunt for a precious scroll and influence the succession at Three Treasures Temple. Worldly greed and ambition will clash on sacred ground in King Hu’s Raining in the Mountain, which screens during BAM CinĂ©matek’s retrospective, All Hail the King: the Films of King Hu.

Esquire Wen is a man of means, who has faithfully supported the temple, but he is also a crooked operator, who would prefer to acquire the temple’s priceless Tripitaki scroll as cheaply and dishonestly as possible. To that end, he has retained the services of the notorious thief White Fox to masquerade as his concubine while she cases the joint. Conveniently, the Abbott has requested his presence to offer counsel while he chooses his successor.

However, Wen is not the only double-dealing guest. General Wang Chi is also staying at the temple for the same ostensive and covert reasons. His chief enforcer is the former brigand turned corrupt cop Chang Chen, who had railroaded the temple’s newest acolyte, Chiu Ming on bogus charges. At least the Abbott can trust the counsel of revered layman Wu Wai, who arrives with entourage of beautiful women, because he is already beyond such earthly concerns (but from a cinematic standpoint, it is quite considerate of him).

There is plenty of action in Mountain, but Hu saves most of the martial arts for the climax. Instead, he treats viewers to a feast of acrobatic sneaking around, which looks absolutely fantastic in and about the striking temple setting. It is a huge place, but White Fox and company duck in and out of every alcove and cranny. Hu served as his own art director on Mountain, crafting a wonderfully elegant, richly appointed widescreen-friendly period production.

Mountain is an absolute blast for wuxia fans, thanks to the half-roguish, half-heroic nature of Wen’s party. They are inclined to do the right thing and help Chiu Ming, provided nobody is watching and it will not interfere with their own plans. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of tragedy and irony in the mix, clearly informed by Buddhist religious traditions.

Hu regular Hsu Feng dazzles as White Fox, another woman of great action. Yet, for sheer mischievous glee, it is hard to match Suen Yuet as Wan, the scheming anti-hero. In contrast, Tung Lam’s salt-of-the-earth Chiu Ming has an acutely earnest and forgiving presence, who delivers the film’s Buddhist teachings with credibility.

This is a great film, partly because there are so many contradictory facets to its personality that nonetheless fit together perfectly. It is briskly paced, but increasingly deep and meaningful. Very highly recommended, Raining in the Mountain is a terrific way to conclude All Hail the King when it screens this Tuesday (6/17) at BAM.