Iron Monkey (1993)
Dir. Yuen Woo-Ping
Written by: Tan Cheung, Tai-Muk Lau, Pik-Yin Tang, Tsui Hark
Starring: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, James Wong
I picked up Iron Monkey on DVD in 2003, sight unseen, at my local Circuit City. I’ve written my high school interest in kung fu movies to death, but that isn’t the only thing that led me to grab a copy of this particular movie that day. The final deciding factor between me grabbing Iron Monkey and yet another bad English transfer of a Bruce Lee classic was the phrase “Quentin Tarantino Presents” above the film’s title on the DVD cover. At that time, Tarantino was the major cinematic gatekeeper and influence in my life, and an endorsement from him was enough to get me to plunk down $15 on a random kung fu flick that I didn’t even realize was already ten years old. When I got home, I found the movie to be an exciting and delightful addition to my little collection of martial arts movies. It was fresh, and seemed thoroughly modern; in fact, I don’t think that I even realized it was made in the early 1990s until after I had watched it several times. Once again, I had trusted QT, the cinephile’s director, to lead me to an influential classic, and once again, he had delivered.
Set in Imperial China, Iron Monkey is a sort of Robin Hood tale. The kind Dr. Yang (Yu) and his assistant, Miss Orchid (Wang), care for the poor and sick, while a corrupt provincial governor, Cheng (Wong), hoards both wealth and food, keeping his citizens in poverty and squalor. By night, the governor and his wealthy courtesans are menaced by a masked ninja, known as the Iron Monkey, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Cheng attempts to employ a squad of disgraced Shaolin monks to capture the Iron Monkey, but to no avail. Meanwhile, a stranger, Wong Kei-ying (Yen), arrives in town with his son, Wong Fei-hong (Angie Tsang) in tow. The governor’s guards believe him to be the Iron Monkey, so they arrest father and son, but the real Iron Monkey arrives to free them. While Wong Kei-ying initially fights the Iron Monkey to a draw in an attempt to clear his name and prove his devotion to the governor, the two eventually join forces when Wong Fei-hong is captured. When a new governor, the disgraced Shaolin monk, Hin-Hung (Yen Shi-kwan), is sent from the emperor, Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying have to fight with all of their strength to defeat him and restore power to the people of the province.
The plot of Iron Monkey is fairly typical, borrowing as it does from traditional Chinese folk history, as well as from the archetypal history of figures in the popular imagination such as Robin Hood. Of course, few viewers are looking for nuanced, layered storytelling when they sit down to enjoy this type of action film. Fans of the kung fu genre will appreciate the film as an origin story for cult hero Wong Fei-hong, as well as for its nods to Chinese folklore and history. Western audiences will likely be attracted to the film’s quick pace and light tone, with the American release being edited both for content and for length. Everyone can likely agree that it’s a film that delivers on the promise of well-choreographed and well-executed action set pieces, and that it mixes in plenty of comedy and intrigue, which is a signature of the Hong Kong studio style. Though it’s obviously stylistically very different that these films, Iron Monkey has the same sort of crossover appeal that Jackie Chan’s action movies were experiencing in America in the mid-1990s, although I can understand why it wasn’t released domestically until after the kung fu craze of the early-2000s that was kicked off by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
I think the biggest takeaway I had from watching Iron Monkey again for the first time in many, many years, was how much I enjoyed watching Donnie Yen’s fight performance. He’s such a versatile and smooth performer, incorporating many different styles of martial arts into his fight scenes. I think that the last thing that I saw Yen in was Star Wars: Rogue One, in which he plays a blind Jedi who is able to move through the world guided by the Force, and this sort of natural flow is on display in Iron Monkey. Yen is also aided by performing in scenes directed by the venerable Hong Kong veteran, and eventual famed Hollywood fight choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping. The film’s final fight scene, in which Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying battle Hin-Hung held up perfectly to my memories of it. The final fight takes place atop bamboo poles, which the combatants have climbed to escape a raging fire that has broken out in the town square. Yen and Yu perform acrobatic stunts, lithely leaping from pole to pole, dressed identically, while Yen Shi-kwan appears impossibly big and powerful, stalking across the poles as the battle arena drastically shrinks while the poles are engulfed in flames. It’s a study in contrasting styles, as are so many climactic fights in these types of movies, but the setting, the charisma of the performers, and the excellent direction by Yuen add up to make it an all-time classic. It’s a fitting ending to for a movie that is the embodiment of a certain brand of Hong Kong studio action films of its period.
I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while now because Iron Monkey is an old favorite of mine, and, like the majority of the kung fu movies in my collection, I’ve neglected returning to it for too long. It was just as good as I remembered it being, and there were a handful of elements of the movie I had forgotten that enriched my enjoyment of it. I didn’t remember at all that it was a Wong Fei-hong origin story, and I suppose that I wasn’t aware of the fact that through its association with Tsui Hark, who is a producer and credited writer on the film, Iron Monkey operates as an adjacent film or even prequel to the Once Upon A Time in China series. I don’t know about Iron Monkey’s availability in America before its 2001 limited theatrical release and this subsequent DVD release, but I would imagine that it might have been available at some point on premium cable, and almost certainly it was available on a bootleg VHS somewhere. I know that I might not have encountered it were it not for a push from one of my favorite filmmakers at the time, and I’m glad that I did because this is definitely one of the superior martial arts movies of the 1990s.