A few weeks ago I revisited Corey Yuen's The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, one of the absolute highlights of 90s martial arts cinema. Closely trailing Yuen's film is Woo-Ping Yuen's Iron Monkey [Siu Nin Wong Fei Hung Ji Tit Ma Lau], another prime example vying for the crown of best '93 Hong Kong martial arts feature. I'd seen the film a couple of times already and was looking forward to watching it once again, this time paying closer attention to how it compares to its peers.
Woo-Ping Yuen is one of the all-time martial arts greats, though not an onscreen practitioner himself. He gained international fame when he was hired to do the action choreography for The Matrix, but films like Iron Monkey and Twin Warriors were no doubt the reason why he got noticed by the Wachowski's in the first place. Yuen often worked as a dedicated action choreographer for other directors' films, but he also directed quite a few movies of his own.
While you might expect these films to be complete action fests, one of the most distinguished features of Yuen's trademark style is his ability to merge martial arts with seemingly mundane tasks and/or slapstick comedy. In the case of Iron Monkey there's a very typical scene early on, where a pile of papers is blown away by a dash of wind, only to be retrieved by various fancy martial arts moves. Scenes like these are vintage Yuen and help to set his films apart from the competition.
The plot is as simple as can be and borrows royally from stories like Robin Hood and Zorro. Iron Monkey is a masked fighter who stands up for the poor and tries to redistribute the wealth in the town where he resides. He fights the local police and government, but finds himself in a pickle when both the righteous Wong Kei-Ying (father of the infamous Wong Fei-Hung) and a corrupt official visit his town. Iron Monkey befriends Kei-Ying, but when Fei-Hung is taken hostage and held as collateral, he must find a way to convince Kei-Ying to fight with him in order for justice to prevail.
Visually it's pretty much on par with comparable genre films from that era. It looks a bit rushed and hastily put together at times, but quick successions of crazy camera angles and hyper tight editing make for a very pleasant visual experience. It's not simply aesthetic either, the editing plays a crucial part in the success of the action scenes. The choreography is so outrageous that the action scenes need to rely more on imagination than actual visual cues, which the editing fully supports.
With these kind of films, the music is rarely anything to write home about, but Iron Monkey's score is noticeably moodier. It's not as loud, generic or blatantly functional compared to similar scores, but it actually manages to inject some extra atmosphere here and there. If you're not familiar with the genre it may not be all that apparent (it's not like this is one of the absolute best scores out there) but it's a definite step up from what I've grown to expect and it should've made a great case for other films to follow in its footsteps. Clearly, that never really happened.
Even though I wached this film three or four times already, I keep forgetting that Donnie Yen isn't in fact playing the part of Iron Monkey. For some reason Iron Monkey is etched in my mind as "that film that features Donnie Yen instead of Jet Li" and because Iron Monkey is the titular character, Yen is somehow the obvious choice for the part. While in reality Yen is taking on the part of Wong Kei-Ying (no worries, he gets plenty of action) and Rongguang Yu was chosen for the part of Iron Monkey. Jean Wang (as Iron Monkey's assitant) and Shun-Yee Yuen (as the token bad guy) both shine in secondary roles.
Iron Monkey serves a fine cocktail of comedy and action. Yuen's superb action choreography is sure to appeal to people even beyond the martial arts realm (the pole fight finale is simply sublime), the comedy on the other hand might be a tougher sell. Hong Kong comedy is rather specific and unless you've grown accustomed to it, it can present a real hurdle. Personally I'm a big fan of Yuen's blend of action and humor, but I'm sure not everything is going to appreciate it in equal measures. Then again, the martial arts antics are the clear focus of the film, so don't let that deter you from watching the film.
Iron Monkey is a film that doesn't disappoint. There's enough creativity, silliness and genuine love for the genre to keep me coming back for more. While the film suffers from the usual caveats, Woo-Ping Yuen adds just enough of a personal touch to make the film stand out from the crowds. It's no doubt a good entry film for people wanting to see more martial arts films, while being accomplished enough to hook even the most hardened fans. Definitely recommend, unless martial arts cinema isn't your thing.