Iron Monkey

Reviewed by YTSL

That which can be suitably viewed as a prequel to the "Once Upon a Time in China" series of films did not fare too well at the local box office in 1993, ranking as only the 58th "best" performer of 143 domestically produced releases that year and lasting but a mere 12 days in Hong Kong cinemas.  Perhaps it was due to the market then being overly-saturated by dramatic action pieces; what with its coming out in the same year as "The Bride with White Hair", "Fong Sai Yuk", "The Heroic Trio", "Project S", director Yuen Woo Ping's "Tai Chi Master" and producer Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" III & IV, "The Magic Crane", "Green Snake" and "Swordsman III:  The East is Red".  It also may be that the stars of this Film Workshop production -- Yu Rong-Guang (who had supporting roles in "Project S" and "The East is Red"), Donnie Yen (who was quite impressive in "Once Upon a Time in China II"), Jean Wong (who made a short but very memorable appearance in "The East is Red") and Tsang Sze-Man (who may have played the boy who grew up to be the Leslie Cheung character in "The Bride with White Hair") -- just do not have the audience drawing power of, say, Brigitte Lin and Jet Li.

Although it may not have truly big names in front of the camera, IRON MONKEY still is an extremely watchable as well as complex piece of work, which thoroughly deserves the cult status it possesses in Western Hong Kong movie fan circles.  This is not least because the movie does contain Yuen Woo Ping's trademark wire-fu touches (the sight of Yu Rong-Guang and Jean Wong's characters gracefully gathering up pieces of flying paper in their clinic gives a hint of what was to come think re Michelle Yeoh's actions in the "tofu scene" -- in Yuen's 1994 "Wing Chun") and set-piece spectacles (as in "Tai Chi Master", there are those involving human heads and wooden logs but the ante is raised here with regards to the latter by some of them being ablaze!).  Then there's the additional layer of meaning possessed by the film whose title refers to a sort of Chinese Robin Hood (in terms of his robbing the corrupt rich to help the poor):  Which comes by way of the kind of indirectly flighted yet on target -- like a particular style of arrow utilized by the East Chamber in "Dragon Inn"! -- political commentary at which Tsui Hark (who co-wrote the script) excels.

It also helps a tremendous lot that the characters in this at times quite touching movie are amazingly well fleshed out and presented for a primarily historical action effort.  Effort has really been made to show more than one side to the man who is Dr. Yang during the day and Iron Monkey by night (Yu Rong-Guang impresses with his acting as well as martial artistic abilities).  The woman whose baby Dr. Yang was unable to keep alive but who he was able to save from a continued life as a prostitute is shown to be his valuable aide as well as competent student (Jean Wong charms as Miss Ho).  Wong Kei-Ying is shown to be a loving father and good cook as well as righteous man, a(nother) skilled medical man and expert martial artist (Donnie Yen capably performs all that the role requires).  It is a relief and unexpected pleasure to have the young Wong Fei-Hung depicted here as neither an annoying brat nor entirely precocious child (Tsang Sze-Man is amazing both in terms of HER fighting skills and dramatic portrayal of a boy trying hard to become a man!).  While the chief villain is 100% evil and another predominantly farcically so, IRON MONKEY does additionally benefit from having at least one character whose loyalties are not entirely certain and feelings are appropriately mixed -- for much of the proceedings.
Bey Logan is absolutely right though in stating that:  "The film is memorable for having as much heart as it has martial art" (In Stefan Hammond's "Hollywood East", 2000:93).  The warm emotions that IRON MONKEY engenders are what really make this a standout movie for this (re)viewer.  Apart from being a spirited tale of good versus evil, this at times deceptively tonally light offering also contains stories of the love between a father and son along with a generous patron and grateful woman.  Also part of the narrative equation are the friendship between good men, their mutual respect for each other, the care that they possess for their fellow humans and the loyalty as well as admiration that they can bring out in other people.
At film's end, when the camera focuses on the boy who would become a legendary hero and freezes for a few seconds on his smiling face, I can pretty much guarantee that the viewer will feel shivers going down his or her spine.  What will then follow is an almost irresistible urge to hum the Wong Fei-Hung tune (which can be heard in IRON MONKEY as well as Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" but is illuminatingly wistfully rendered in this movie while rousing in that popular series) and either rewatch or spread the good word about an effort that deserves a larger audience, or follow it up with a viewing of the first "Once Upon a Time in China"!  While this work will not be everyone's cup of tea (I'm thinking here of those people who like their action straight up and wire-less, others who just will never like any movie with some amount of fighting in it and still other individuals who might be a bit insulted by its alternately inserting wicked, ironic and just plain playful humor into certain otherwise serious situations), it surely will be greatly appreciated by those who go for this multi-layered, genre-blending kind of cinematic experience and impact.
My rating for this film:  9.5.

Reviewed by Brian

Other than the emotionally powerful threads that run through the film, Iron Monkey is also a dazzlingly choreographed action film. It is imaginative and mindboggling throughout and somehow Yuen Woo Ping manages to make each action scene stand on its own merits as a distinct gem. True, the action is speeded up and the wirework is at times obtrusive, but it is done with so much flair and passion that the viewer simply begins to overlook it and to take it as reality.

All the characters get their share of wonderful action sequences and Yuen makes them all look so good. Jean Wong has a terrific fight against a gang of ruffians in which she has some lovely graceful moments and Tsang Sze-Man is simply incredible in a few fights as she fights off numerous adults with various instruments at hand. Needless to say both Donnie Yen and Yu Rong-Guang (why didn't this guy become a huge star?) have a number of powerful conflicts against each other, against  a group of treacherous monks and against the wonderfully evil Yam Sai-Koon (Heroic Trio).
As good as the fights were that preceded it, the finale surpasses them. It has to be seen to be fully appreciated. It is simply a stunning set piece. Yu and Donnie match up against Yam and most of the fight takes place on top of a number of wooden poles with a fire raging down below. The three of them leap from pole to pole all the time delivering vicious blows and attempting to knock each other into the fiery death that awaits them below. It is one of the more brilliant action scenes I have come across in HK films. You sit there thinking how the hell did they do this?

My rating for this film: 9.0