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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Iron Monkey (1993) dir: Yuen Woo-Ping Blu Ray (Eureka!)

A chapter in the early life of a martial arts hero

This Hong Kong period martial arts picture is a prequel to Once Upon a Time in China and focusses an episode in the childhood of Chinese martial artist Wong Fei-Hong. It stars Yu Rong-Kwong as a respected town doctor named Yang Tianchun who, by night, becomes Iron Monkey, a Robin Hood-style folk hero. One night, he breaks into the palace of the local governor Cheng Pak-Fong (James Wong) and steals some of his vast fortune in order to redistribute it to the victims of a flood.

Yu Rong Kwong in Iron Monkey

The furious Cheng orders the leader of his military guard, General Fox (Shun-Yee Yuen) to round up various local suspects. While he goes around arresting various characters who seem even tenuously suspicious, he spies a martial artist named Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) who wanders through the town accompanied by his son Wong Fei-Hong (Angie Tsang). When he displays his impressive skills by fending off a group of would-be muggers, Fox apprehends the pair of them.

The group of suspects is brought before Cheng who attempts to coerce them into a confession. Speak of the devil: at that moment, the real Iron Monkey shows up and attacks his entourage. Wong Kei-Ying decides to fight this assailant and proves to be a formidable match. While this masked bandit eventually makes an escape, Cheng decides to harness Kei-Ying’s skills by holding his son in a cell until he takes out the mysterious miscreant.

After the trial, Kei-Ying attempts to buy some street food. However, due to the fact that the merchants hold Iron Monkey in such high esteem, none of them are happy to sell him any of their ware. Eventually, our famished protagonist is invited into Yang’s home by his partner, Miss Orchid (Jean Wang), who offers him some soup. Yang attempts to lure Kei-Ying (who is still unaware of his identity) to his side by setting out to rescue Fei-Hong.

Watch a trailer:

Woo-Ping wows the viewer

Director Yuen Woo-Ping became well-known for popularising wire-based martial arts choreography in the Western world, during the late 1990s to early 2000s, via his work on such films as The Matrix trilogy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill Vol. 1/Vol. 2. However, he had worked in the Hong Kong film industry since the early 1960s in various capacities including as an actor, a stunt coordinator, a martial arts choreographer and a director. Iron Monkey is considered to be one of his finest achievements and was picked up by Miramax for a 2001 US cinema release in the wake of his newfound popularity on this side of the world. Unfortunately, the version was butchered in an ill-advised attempt to make it more accessible for mainstream American palates by, amongst other things, reducing the comedic elements and some of the stronger scenes of violence.

Acrobatic martial arts in Iron Monkey

Thankfully, the version provided on this disc is presented in all of its uncut glory. The whole film is a great showcase of what makes Woo-Ping such an adept hand at the traditional Hong Kong cinematic art form known as wuxia. Most of the runtime is taken up with a string of exhilaratingly wild, gracefully choreographed martial arts acrobatic displays. Actors leap and spin in eye-marvelling ways while the camera excitedly tracks their every movement. Scenery is as satisfyingly smashed up as the characters are, with straw-filled sacks, restaurant tables and a wooden walkway being amongst the items which end up being spectacularly demolished in the process. It’s all capped off with an incredibly dangerous finale as three highly skilled combatants fight precariously above a blazing inferno by hopping between wooden poles. In typical wuxia style, the world feels rather like one huge set. However, it possesses a sheer sense of physicality which makes it all believable, from the way in which wood splinters believably after being smashed with well-placed fists, to the array of delicious-looking foods which the characters consume throughout.

Solid storytelling amid the action

While the plot zips past so quickly that it’s occasionally hard to keep track of, there’s enough for the viewer to grab a handle on for it to avoid degenerating into mindlessness. On one hand, there’s a somewhat subversive, anti-establishment swagger in the Iron Monkey’s Robin Hood-style mischief against the forces of the self-serving governor. One the other, Yang Tianchun - the real man behind the mask - displays a philanthropic sense of decency which proves to be just as crucial an element in helping him to clean up the stench of corruption in town. In many ways, he’s the polar opposite of a Batman-style sullen loner; he’s a man who draws others into supporting his symbolic alter ego by pulling them in rather than by pushing them away. By extension, the ultimate message here is that Iron Monkey isn’t one man: he’s a symbol to be adopted by the oppressed lower orders.

Moreover, the relationships between the main characters are developed with a sense of genuine poignancy, especially the father-and-son bond between Kei-Ying and Fei-Hong, as well as the flashbacks depicting the origins of Yang Tianchun and Miss Orchid’s relationship. It’s this sense of humanity which helps to lift Iron Monkey above most films of its type. Oh… and did I mention that all of that ass-kicking is pretty damn stylish to boot?

Runtime: 90 mins

Dir: Yuen Woo-Ping

Script: Tan Cheung, Tai-Mok Lau, Elsa Tang, Tsui Hark

Starring: Yu Rong-Kwong, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Angie Tsang, Shun-Yee Yuen, James Wong

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

Contrast levels are a little too low during the opening nighttime sequence, making it a trifle difficult to make out at times. However, from then on in, things improve considerably. Every speck of dust and debris can be viewed with almost unnerving clarity in this 2K restoration.

Extras

Interview with Donnie Yen

This interview with one of the film’s main martial arts actors suffers from a rather overblown soundtrack but still contains some points of interest. He reveals that Writer-producer Tsui Hark cast female martial artist Angie Tsang in the role of the boy Wong Fei-Hong as he wanted a performance with a soft, gentle side along with the obligatory exceptional fighting skills. Donnie also discusses the martial arts technique that he used in the film, mixing Hung Ga with wirework. Towards the end of his interview, he also notes the circularity of influence of the kung fu film: hip hop bands such as Wu-Tang Clan have acknowledged their influence, while young people in Hong Kong and other Asian cities have, in turn, been heavily inspired by the musical genre.

Interview with producer Tsui Hark

The famous Hong Kong filmmaker discusses his Wong Fei-Hong project, which is comprised of the Once Upon a Time in China film series and Iron Monkey.

Interview with Yu Rong-Kwong

The Iron Monkey himself discusses his early career (in common with many other martial arts actors such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, he started out as a Peking Opera performer) as well as his experiences working on this film. He reveals that his co-star Jean Wang was a Taiwanese model and that this was her first martial arts feature - which is quite incredible, considering the moves she pulls off on screen! The climactic fight on poles above a burning courtyard took around 15 to 20 days to shoot. Despite its undeniable quality, the film flopped at the Hong Kong box office, due mainly to the fact that Tsui Hark postponed its release so that more dramatic scenes could be filmed.

Interview with Li Fai

It’s another interview with an unnecessary and overblown soundtrack playing over the top. This time, we also get white subtitles overlaid on a light area of the image, making this a strain to watch. It’s a shame, because the interview with actress Li Fai (who plays one of the film’s antagonists) isn’t bad. She initially got into martial arts from growing up reading kung-fu novels. She started out her film career as a stunt double. She was kept busy because there weren’t many stuntwomen in Hong Kong cinema, but admits that she sweated and cried a lot. She also felt depressed about her line of work after seeing another stuntwoman - who also worked as a dancer - break her legs after a mishap on set.

When she auditioned for Iron Monkey, she had bad skin from living in the mountains. As a result, Yuen Woo-Ping suggested that she play an ugly character on screen!

Interview with Angie Tsang

Angie Tsang in Iron Monkey

Tsang reveals that director Yuen saw her in a martial arts show and asked her to a casting call for the role of Wong Fei-Hong as he initially thought she was a boy. When he received her CV he realised that she was a girl, but still asked her to play the part anyway. She describes him as being demanding to work for and rather like “a very strict uncle”. She reveals that her crying scene near the end of the film was difficult because she was ingrained to be afraid of crying for fear of her school friends laughing at her. In order to induce her to burst into tears, she asked her mother to yell at her and scold her off camera! She also injured one of her co-stars during a fight; she initially tried to hit him softly but the director told her that this didn’t look convincing.

Iron Fist - The Choreography of Iron Monkey

The overblown soundtrack strikes again here! This time, the interviewee is Yuen Woo-Ping’s brother Yuen Cheung-Yan, who helped to choreograph Iron Monkey’s fight sequences. He reveals that the climactic fire fight sequence took a long time to shoot as the fire had to match between shots. If it didn’t look right, they had to wait for it to go out and start all over again. Cheung-Yan reused some of the choreography from another of the film’s many fight sequences when working on McG’s adaptation of Charlie’s Angels (2001).

Shadow Boxing with Alex Yip

Yip, a respected Hong Kong stuntman who worked on Iron Monkey, demonstrates a variety of fighting techniques. It’s a diverting 8 minutes of martial arts demonstration for buffs and features an unexpected appearance by a cute little dog to boot. Oh, and that damn music again. Aaaaargh!

Li Fai and Angie Tsang at the 2003 Wu Shu Championships

The two actresses show off some swordplay for the judges in Macau. Again, that horribly overblown music rears its ugly head in the background.

A theatrical trailer and collector’s booklet round out the extras.

Overall:

Iron Monkey is one of the great Hong Kong period martial arts flicks. The extras here (which, it seems, largely originate from the old Hong Kong Legends disc) are marred at times by that aforementioned bombastic soundtrack but are still of interest to fans.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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