by Del Harvey
Directed by the choreographer for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
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The first thing they should tell you is that Iron Monkey was originally made in 1993. However, unlike ratty reissues of dismal foreign efforts like Jackie Chan in The Prisoner (well, he is in it for maybe 15 minutes), Iron Monkey is worth seeing on a big screen. Unlike Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Iron Monkey is a more traditional kung fu/martial arts film. Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, fight choreographer of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Iron Monkey takes place in 1858 China, when the Ching Dynasty is endemic with corruption. A local governor has been hoarding food while hiking prices and making profits, and has been making it tough for everyone to eat. (“Add more bark, it’ll taste better” is a typical dinnertime conversation among peasants.) Enter visiting physician/martial artist Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his young son (played by child actress Tsang Sze Man). Rebelling against injustice, the doctor challenges the system and fights back, earning the nickname, “Iron Monkey.” By night he battles to give hope to the poor and oppressed. Although no one knows his name or where he’s from, his heroism makes him a living legend to the people…and a wanted man to the powers that be. The ruthless government devises a plan: force a nationally renowned master fighter into service by taking his beloved and only son hostage. The mandate is simple—track down the Iron Monkey if he ever wants to see his boy again. But when the Iron Monkey’s identity and true intentions are revealed to him the tables turn.
Director Yuen Woo-Ping was born in 1945 to a kung fu/theatrical family in China. His father, Yuen Siu Tin, was a Peking Opera performer and kung fu expert who came to Hong Kong at mid-century as one of the “Dragon-Tiger Masters.” These stuntmen and action choreographers forged the distinctive style of Hong Kong martial arts films in the 50s and 60s. The senior Yuen was closely associated with the long-running Wong Fei Hung series starring Kwan Tak Hing, which extended over two decades and comprised almost 100 films. Yuen Wo Ping literally grew up on the Wong Fei Hung sets.
No other person has had more influence on Hong Kong cinema over the past 20 years than than acclaimed filmmaker Tsui Hark, who produced and co-worte Iron Monkey. As producer and director of blockbuster hits like Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Peking Opera Blues, A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon a Time in China, and Time and Tide, Tsui Hark single-handedly brought a fresh new approach to the kung fu/action genre. Raised in Vietnam and Hong Kong, Tsui talked his family into allowing him to come to the USA under the pretense of studying medicine at the University of Texas. When they discovered he was learning filmmaking instead, his father threatened to hang himself. Despite this early setback, Tsui graduated and returned to Hong Kong, where he became a successful TV director in the late ’70s. His early work was distinguished by a tendency to deconstruct traditional Chinese genres from a leftist sensibility. This maverick streak became more pronounced as he moved into feature film work.
Yen grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, although he was born in Guangdong, China. His father, Klysler Yen, is a newspaper editor and musician, and his mother, Bow Sim Mark, is a very well known wushu and tai chi teacher. Yen studied first with her and then went to China to train with top wushu coaches in Beijing. Yen was starting to make a name in the tournament circuit when a meeting with Yuen Wo Ping in Hong Kong led to a new career in film. His first starring role, in Yuen’s Drunken Tai Chi, was a huge success. Yen went on to star in many other action films, and has been acclaimed for the ferocity and realism of his fighting scenes.
Iron Monkey is not as lyric as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it is a superb action film with some astounding cinematography and action sequences. Iron Monkey is definitely worth your time.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.
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