Yuen Woo-Ping’s “Iron Monkey” – 2012 New York Asian Film Festival Review

(Ed. Note: This review was originally written in 1995, hence the timing of some of the chronological references. It was published on Meniscus once “Iron Monkey” was added to the 2012 New York Asian Film festival lineup.)

It is difficult to believe after viewing “Iron Monkey” that this movie was a Hong Kong box office flop upon its 1993 release.  Perhaps the supposed lack of first-tier stars and the reputation of its producer (Tsui Hark) caused the Hong Kongers to avoid the theaters, but the movie definitely served as a breakthrough for all of the actors and actresses involved.

“Iron Monkey” is yet another takeoff on the Wong Fei Hung legend. Wong Fei Hung was a martial artist in the 1800’s whose name became synonymous with kung fu movies, although he was actually in real life an above-average fighter. This production casts Fei Hung as a child, impressively portrayed by the 10-year-old former world kung-fu champion Tsang Sze Man (a girl!).

This time, however, Wong Fei Hung is not the main character. Instead, the Iron Monkey (Yu Rong Guang/Yu Wing Kwong), Fei Hung’s father Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen Chi-Tan), and Iron Monkey’s assistant, Orchid (Jean Wang) share the responsibility.  The Iron Monkey serves dual jobs–during the day, he is a doctor who is well-respected by the corrupt government; in the evening, he is Iron Monkey, China’s version of Robin Hood and a figure that those same officials are dying to stop. Iron Monkey’s trademark is a black samurai-type outfit with a mask that covers the lower half of his face.

Enter Wong Kei-Ying and his son Fei-Hung, who stop by the area during a long trek from their hometown of Fushan. Little do they know that the government officials have instigated a town-wide search for the Iron Monkey, and Fei-Hung’s small squabble with a townsman nearly throws both of them into jail. When it is proven that neither father nor son is the Iron Monkey, Wong Kei- Ying promises to the head government official that he will find Iron Monkey for him. The official gives him five days, but will keep Fei-Hung in prison in the meantime.

“Iron Monkey” was directed by Yuen Woo Ping, but Tsui Hark had a huge say in its plot as its main writer. Tsui, director of several box office hits including “Once Upon A Time in China” Parts I-III and the “Chinese Ghost Story” series, has seen his success go down the drain. Recent releases such as “Green Snake” and more sequels to “Once Upon A Time in China” have lacked the kinetic quality of his legend predecessors. In addition, Tsui and Jet Li, the popular martial artist who starred in the first three episodes of “Once Upon…,” had their partings, reportedly due to contract problems. Though “Iron Monkey” is one of the finer productions in years, Tsui was not cast as the official director, and he now finds himself in danger of being eclipsed by up-and-coming directors such as Wong Kar Wai (“Chung King Express”), Jeff Lau (“Love and the City”), and Johnnie To (“The Bare-Footed Kid”), among others.

Yu Rong Guang (“Project S,” “A Terracotta Warrior”) turns in an impressive performance as the Iron Monkey, but his role is overshadowed by that of Donnie Yen’s. Yen, like Yu, is a real-life martial artist whose awesome power and quickness is unfortunately devalued somewhat by the use of high-speed film.  The movie also features martial arts by three females–Tsang (the world champion hailing from not Hong Kong but California), Jean Wang (“The East Is Red,” “Once Upon A Time in China IV”), and Li Fan (the witch-faced Shaolin nun).

Other than a few minor glitches, this movie is perhaps one of the best kung-fu films of recent years. The stunts are outrageous yet believable–the opening scene features the Iron Monkey defeating several monks while standing on their heads—and the wirework goes unnoticed, save one scene with Jean Wang (who is not a martial artist in real life). The final fight, which I won’t give away, leaves viewers shaking their heads and wondering, “How did they film that?”

Although the plot is fairly understandable, viewers who are not aware of Chinese history or legends may not be able to pick up on the plot of “Iron Monkey” as well as they would like.  Also, the subtitles (which are only there because of British law) sometimes have grammatical errors or meanings that are not as specific as the literal ones in Cantonese or Mandarin. Still, the movie is a must-see for those who wish to learn several creative ways of beating people up.

IRON MONKEY (少年黃飛鴻之鐵馬騮)

Director: Yuen Woo Ping

Producer: Tsui Hark

Cast: Yu Rong Guang, Jean Wang, Donnie Yen Chi-Tan, Tsang Sze Man

Duration: 90 minutes

Distribution: Tai Seng Video Marketing, Inc., 170 South Spruce Ave., #200, South San Francisco, CA 94080

Showings/Availability: The movie is being shown at several Hong Kong film conventions, including several runs in West Coast and Midwest movie theaters by Rim Distribution. It is also available at a Chinatown movie rental store near you.

“Iron Monkey,” a late addition to the loaded 2012 New York Asian Film Festival lineup, screens Sun., July 8, at 10:30 p.m. at the IFC Center. Donnie Yen will make an appearance!

Video: Q&A with Donnie Yen, IRON MONKEY, 2012 New York Asian Film Festival

video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine