Review: Iron Monkey (1993)

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We love heroes here at Heroic Cinema as you probably know. And there’s no shortage of heroes in Iron Monkey. Correction: I should say, butt-kicking heroes. Iron Monkey has the sort of heroes that make your heart swell when they thump the baddies (and there’s plenty here), help the poor and save the day. So what if the plot is simplistic and the stereotypes are stretched to cartoonish proportions? So what if it’s a little cheesy and the dubbing is sometimes overtly out of synch? This is still martial arts entertainment at its classiest with eye-popping wire-work visuals. It is fun and irresistable viewing for anyone who is the slightest bit interested in the martial arts genre. Your gung-fu film-viewing repertoire just wouldn’t be complete without it.

But let’s get back to the heroes. We have the venerable Dr. Yang (Yu Rong Guang), a kindly physician by day and a benevolent, Robin Hood-like vigilante, Iron Monkey, by night. He robs from the rich, especially from the corrupt local governor, Cheng, (played by the late composer, James Wong, who is gleefully nasty in his role) and distributes the wealth among the poor.
Then there’s Wong Kay Ying (Donnie Yen), one of the famed ‘Ten Tigers from Canton’. More importantly, he’s Wong Fei Hung’s (Tsang Sze Man) father. A hero of the righteous and stoic variety, he unrelentingly drills his life motto into the younger Fei Hung – “A man is strong as steel. A man sheds blood but not tears.” You got that soldiers?

The paths of these two heroes inevitably cross when Cheng forces upon Wong Kay Ying the responsibility of capturing Iron Monkey, by holding Wong Fei Hung hostage. What ensues is a wonderful tale of the oppressed rising against the odds, and the triumph of good over evil, played out with that twisted combination of drama, zany comedy and slapstick that HK does so well, with some of the most exciting wire gung-fu ever filmed thrown in.

That brings me to the heroes behind the camera. Well, where do I start?
There’s Yuen Woo Ping, the director, now famous in the US for his involvement in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, he’s a respectable director in his own right, with works such as Snake in Eagle’s Claw and The Magnificent Butcher to his name and the reputation of discovering Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen.
Iron Monkey, his 18th feature, was the perfect stage for Yuen Woo Ping to flex his directing muscles, and that it turned out to be a superlative film in its genre is not accidental but indicative of the accummulated experience of Yuen and his equally impressive crew, namely his brothers.

Younger siblings Yuen Cheung Yan and Yuen Shun Yi are credited as action directors, with Yuen Shun Yi playing the comic relief role of Master Fox as well. It would be safe to say the Yuen clan are experts in the field, and they bring years of nifty tricks and techniques to this film.
The decision to shoot fight scenes in a faster frame rate made the action look *spectacular*. But more importantly, they are adept at combining the right choreography with the appropriate camera moves ensuring the scenes, be they punching out a gang of ruffians with an umbrella or catching a pile of flyaway papers in the wind, are fluid and graceful, with distinct well-placed accents, and not just a flurry of movement.
Yuen Woo Ping is also astute at using action choreography in non-combat scenes to good effect too, drawing out emotions, especially in scenes which showcase Dr Yang’s nicely ambiguous relationship with his assistant Orchid (Jean Wang).

With the HK Legends platinum release you can (re)discover this and much more. The ‘much more’ lies in the densely-packed goodies DVD, which will make most enthusiasts weak at the knees. There are interviews with producer Tsui Hark, actors Yu Rong Guang, Li Fai and Tsang Sze Man (actually an actress!) and some tasty featurettes with famous stuntman Alex Yip, and competition footage of Tsang Sze Man and Li Fai at the World Wushu Championships.

A great package. Watch it, I guarantee it will be an enjoyable ride.

9 sturdy umbrellas out of 10.
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