The Scoop: 1993 PG-13. Directed by Yuen Wo Ping and starring Donnie Yen, Rongguang Yu, and Jean Wang.
Tagline: Sometimes the only way to become a hero is to be an outlaw.
Summary Capsule: A masked hero battles greedy governors, misled martial artists, and royal pains in the neck in nineteenth-century China.
Al’s Rating: If I had to choose a superpower, it would totally be ‘Flying Sleeves.’
Al’s Review: Everybody remembers their first. I remember mine. I was sixteen and I had been invited over to “hang out” after working a Saturday shift at the local movie theater. I walked down those basement stairs a boy and, two hours later, strode out a man. It all started like this:
“What do you mean you’ve never seen Iron Monkey?”
And I didn’t know what to say. Frankly, I don’t know what I had been doing with my life before I found Hong Kong cinema. I think I had seen Rumble in the Bronx once or twice and I could probably identify Jackie Chan in a lineup (probably), but I had never imagined that men and women could move this fast. Or that I could laugh and cheer at a film where I knew I didn’t get all the nuances. Or even just that a movie with subtitles could be this good. And the great thing about Yuen Wo Ping’s Iron Monkey is that, after more than a decade of kung fu films, it still holds up as a shining example of the genre and one of my all-time favorite action flicks.
The story is simple, revolving around the mysterious Iron Monkey (Yu Rongguang)—a Zorro-type hero who fights against the city of Chiekang’s corrupt bureaucrats and steals from their treasuries to distribute amongst the downtrodden townsfolk. By day, he is the gentle Dr. Yang, a local physician who provides free medical care for the city soldiers (most of whom get injured in the Monkey’s raids) with the help of his beautiful assistant, Miss Orchid (Jean Wang).
After a particularly embarrassing incident, Governor Cheng learns that the emperor’s Royal Minister is on his way to clean up Chiekang and Cheng demands the police force start rounding up all civilians deemed ‘suspicious.’ His captives include people practicing Monkeyfist kung fu, people climbing on ladders, people sneezing like monkeys, and even actual monkeys. Amongst those taken in are Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), a famous traveling monk, and his son, Wong Fei-Hung (played by a girl, Angie Tsang, but not so you’d notice). When the officials discover that they are holding the famous kung fu boxer, they imprison Fei-Hung in the Governor’s dungeon and force Kei-Ying track down the Iron Monkey and deliver him to the court.
The first, and arguably best, thing about Iron Monkey is that it’s funny. Unlike Jet Li and Bruce Lee, who are constantly brooding and driven by revenge, Donnie Yen and Yu Rongguang are a little more like Spider-Man, bouncing around the room, peppering their opponents with quips as often as kicks. They’re clearly enjoying the heck out of their characters and aren’t afraid to make the most of their roles. It’s also full of broad physical humor, but it’s never so over the top that it gets silly (see: Tai Chi Master) and goes a long way to stop the film from ever becoming so dark or serious that it needs an enema.
The action, naturally, is top notch. Donnie Yen is stellar as always and, although I haven’t seen Yu Rongguang outside this movie, he keeps up with Donnie kick-for-blindingly fast kick and carries the movie well. The other ingredient needed for a successful action film, of course, is a memorable villain and Iron Monkey doesn’t disappoint here either. James Wong is hilarious as the greedy, sniveling Governor, while Shi-Kwan Yen and Fai Li are memorably evil as the deadly Royal Minister and his bodyguard, the Shaolin Nun.
The fighting ranges from crowded marketplaces to slanted rooftops to a burning field of wooden posts, and never once does it feel old or tired. Yuen Wo Ping has always staged the best fights in the business, and, in Iron Monkey, every setpiece radiates the energy and creativity of a master at work.
Beyond all that macho stuff, however, what really sets Iron Monkey apart for me is the heart it displays. The relationships feel real and the film is smart enough to occasionally slow down and let them breathe in between the crazy action and cheesy melodrama (is there any other kind?). Kei-Ying and Fei-Hung have a charming father/son/teacher/student dynamic and I absolutely love the more mature father/daughter interaction between Miss Orchid and Dr. Yang. There’s even a glancing bit of romance that manages to be sweet without ever getting syrupy.
If I have to complain about something, it would have to be the way you are probably going to watch Iron Monkey. Chances are, the version you will get your hands on is going to be the 2001 “Quentin Tarantino Presents” edition. While I applaud QT’s desire to bring this little bit of Eastern awesomeness into our world, Miramax has *ahem* tailored the film for Western audiences. The violence is toned down, some of the humor has been eliminated for fear it would confuse us dumb Americans, and—my real gripe—the excellent musical score has been completely dumped in favor of a sweeping Crouching Tiger-esque orchestra that feels out of place in a film that isn’t trying to be epic—just a whole lot of fun. I’m not saying to skip the movie if that’s the edition can find, I’d only mention that there are better versions out there if you have an option.
When Iron Monkey ended that Saturday in the basement, I felt like something significant had changed in me. That sounds silly, I know, but it’s true. I had seen a movie that no one else had ever heard of, and yet I knew that if they could see what I saw they would love it like I did. I wasn’t even sure if there was a word for that kind of movie, until a year or so later when I found this weird little website that wrote everything in slime green. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a movie I should have reviewed a long, long time ago. If you haven’t seen Iron Monkey, then you owe it to yourself to check it out. If you have, I think it’s time to get reacquainted. In short: I don’t think movies get much better than this.
- Doctor Yang can take two pulses at once? And write two prescriptions!
- Chief Fox has a birthmark that looks like New Jersey?
- The ‘falling’ autumn leaves are really clearly being thrown at the camera from offscreen?
- Maybe if I could clean my room like that I would do it more often.
- The ‘angry monkey’ drawing thrown at the greedy villager?
- Tip-tsi cures swelling? Never forget it!
- Fei Hung’s trademark umbrella fighting and staff fighting?
- All the emotional fan waving going on?
- Shaolin cooking?
- Donnie Yen does my favorite No-Shadow kick.
- The evil Shaolin nun? *Bwaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!*
- Miss Orchid disguised as the royal attaché? Love it.
- The Royal Minister’s Shaolin guards all have facial scars?
- The handprint-shaped bruise left by Shaolin Buddha’s Palm?
- Chief Fox is sharper than he looks?
- The Royal Minister kills a man with a cherry tomato?
- Donnie Yen holding the business end of a burning pole with his bare hand? Awesome.
- Although Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid are fictional characters, Wong Kei-Ying and Wong Fei-Hung were real people. Kei-Ying was a respected martial artist and herbalist in the early nineteenth century. Fei-Hung grew up to be a wandering physician and martial artist. He was master of Hung Ga and legendarily fought with the staff (as in Iron Monkey) and southern tiger fork. He was renowned for protecting the weak and fighting injustice all over China. Today, he is considered one of the country’s greatest folk heroes. He died at the age of seventy-six on March 25th, 1924.
- In cinema, Wong Fei-Hung has been the subject of over 100 films. To Americans, his best known portrayals are likely by Jet Li in Once Upon A Time in China and Jackie Chan in Drunken Master. Numerous sources report him as the most portrayed character in movie history. Wong Fei-Hung also often fought while calling out the names of the stances he used. This is the likely origin of the kung-fu genre’s inclination for its characters to do the same.
Guard: Those Shaolin monks are so severe!
Chief Fox: I would smack them, but its snack time.
Iron Monkey: Don’t blink or you’ll miss the fun!
Peasant #1: Add more bark. It’ll taste better.
Peasant #2: But the soup already tastes like a tree!
Attaché: Governor! The monkey is showing his ass!
Governor Cheng: What kind of monster would shave my eyebrow?
Governor Cheng: Is that really the royal fan?
Chief Fox: I had the honor of being struck by it!
Fei Hung [to himself]: Wow. My kung-fu is pretty good.
Wong Kei Ying: A strong man sheds blood before he sheds tears!
Fei Hung [staff fighting] : “Rod that Sweeps Away Injustice!” “A Strong Force Flows From North to South!”
Monk: Don’t let him chant! No chanting!
If You Liked This Movie, Try These:
- Shaolin Soccer
- Legend of Drunken Master
- Kung Fu Colt Master