Iron Monkey

on October 12, 2001 by Wade Major
   Originally made in 1993 when the so-called "Hong Kong New Wave" was at its peak, "Iron Monkey" is a quintessential example of the kind of filmmaking to which American audiences have only recently begun to spark. Produced and co-written by Tsui Hark ("Once Upon a Time in China") and directed by the great Yuen Wo Ping (of "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" fame), "Iron Monkey" is both a dazzling martial arts action film and a rousing period adventure not entirely unlike Tsui's own "Once Upon a Time in China" series to which "Iron Monkey" is vaguely linked.

   The Iron Monkey himself (Yu Rong-Guang) is a kind of Robin Hood/Zorro/Lone Ranger figure, a masked hero fighting the oppression of corrupt Ching Dynasty officials in 1860 China. When the famous real-life herbalist and Kung Fu master Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) comes to town, officials falsely accuse Wong of being the Iron Monkey as part of a scheme to get him to help track the Monkey down. It's a rather infantile ruse that lasts just long enough for Yen and Yu to deliver some staggering one-on-one fight scenes before they come to their senses and join forces.

   Many of the scenes will strike viewers as uncannily similar to portions of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a clear indication of Yuen Wo Ping's signature on both pictures. Comparisons only work, though, on the most superficial level. Where "Crouching Tiger" pursued a more classical, romantic approach to traditional Chinese lore, "Iron Monkey" owes its allegiance to the great Shaw Brothers films of the '60s, pictures in which the purity of the fighting and the exactitude of the martial arts were as important as their effect on the audience.

   Fans of the genre have long appreciated "Iron Monkey" for casting a light on the figure of Wong Kei-Ying, too. Historically, Wong Kei-Ying has been overshadowed by his equally famous son, Wong Fei-Hong. Hundreds of Hong Kong movies have told and retold the exploits of the younger Wong (Jet Li and Jackie Chan have both portrayed him, respectively, in the "Once Upon a Time in China" and "Drunken Master" films), but rarely focused on the accomplishments of the elder. Wong Fei-Hong does, of course, figure in the plot of "Iron Monkey," but appears as a young boy (played by a girl: the wonderful Tsang Sze-Man) still under the firm tutelage of his father. That twist, along with the visceral relish with which Yuen Wo Ping stages the action and the dazzling performances from both Donnie Yen ("Blade 2") and Yu Rong-Guang ("Shanghai Noon"), help account for the passion that "Iron Monkey" continues to arouse in fans to this day.

   While the acquisition and distribution of Hong Kong classics is nothing new for Miramax, who has successfully re-distributed a variety of Jackie Chan favorites over the years, it's a noteworthy indication of the post-"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" atmosphere that they have foregone the usual practice of dubbing such films into English, instead releasing "Iron Monkey" in the original Cantonese and with virtually no editorial alterations. The only noteworthy changes include some remastered audio effects, new music cues and explanatory cards at the beginning and end to couch the film in its proper historic framework.    Starring Donnie Yen, Yu Rong-Guang, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze-Man, Yuen Shun-Yi and James Wong. Directed by Yuen Wo-Ping. Written by Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang and Lau Tai Mok. Produced by Tsui Hark. A Miramax release. Action. Cantonese-language; subtitled. Rated PG-13 for martial arts action/violence and brief sexuality. Running time: 86 min.

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