This was the first kung-fu movie I ever saw; or at least the first one I really remember as a teenager in the nineties. As such, it will always hold a place in my heart and so re-watching it with a reviewer’s eye gave me some trepidation at first. It had been nearly twenty years after all. Would it stand up with the movies it inspired?
Fortunately, present me enjoyed Iron Monkey as much as past me, and not just for the nostalgia. The plot is basically Robin Hood with kung-fu, the titular hero being a hero who robs from greedy officials to give to the poor. By day, Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-Guang) is a mild mannered doctor with a penchant for charging the rich over the odds for medicines so he can give them to the poor for free. At night, an outlaw by the name of Iron Monkey is making trouble for the corrupt Governor (James Wong). He tasks Shaolin monks and his security chief with apprehending the criminal.
Meanwhile, another doctor, Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), is travelling north with his son (Tsang Sze-Man). His son is, for no other reason than its kinda cool, the soon-to-be-a-legend Wong Fei-Hung. The Wongs get caught up in the Governor’s scheme to trap Iron Monkey, and Wong Sr. agrees to catch the outlaw in exchange for his son’s freedom.
This movie follows the rule of, “the more powerful you are, the more wires you can use.” This is not actually a bad thing for Iron Monkey. As a story about a folk hero adapted from a different story about a folk hero, it’s pretty cool to see the levelling up of battles until the climactic fight with the treacherous shaolin monk. The choreography is slick and not too ostentatious; the fighting is functional, and occasionally played for laughs as Iron Monkey jumps from the skull of one opponent to another, pausing only to kick someone in the face with both feet without losing momentum. That’s not to say that this movie is lightweight; when the drama is serious, the fighting is played straight. The first encounter between Yang and Kei-Ying, Fei-Hung versus four shaolin goons using a staff and Iron Monkey taking on two powerful henchmen are particular stand outs.
The first dilemma I had with this movie prior to watching it. Though the USA release in 2001 (courtesy Mr. Tarantino) cut out a lot of violence and toned down the undercranking on the fight scenes, I found I just could not live with the changed dialogue. In context of when it was made, the movie is at heart a critique of corruption in government- not only that, but the dubbed version totally sucks. I’m not usually a stickler for subtitles, but Iron Monkey is one that is not served well by voice overs. There’s plenty of humour here, but it remains a very Chinese sense of humour that is totally lost when dubbed. I opted for the 1993 original, which came back to bite me when taking screenshots and in all honesty the sped up technique does look a little dated twenty years on. It’s a minor quibble though, Iron Monkey should be on any fan’s watch list. Still solid. Still Iron. Skip the USA release, though.
- Tsang Sze-Man was thirteen years old when she played one of the greatest heroes of Chinese folklore, and steals every scene. Keeping up with Donnie Yen is no mean feat, and to ensure that the Wong Fei-Hung fight scenes don’t fall flat is a testament to her incredible skill; not to mention the progressive attitude shown by the director in casting a young girl to play the male character, Wong Fei-Hung.
- Tsang went on to win gold at the World Wushu Championships in 2003. Following her sole film appearance, she pursued a career in law enforcement and still serves with the HK police force. So that’s probably the worst place in the world to live, if you are a mugger.