period martial arts films of contemporary Hong Kong are to world cinema - at their best, light-hearted, skillful breaths of fresh air, reliable at the very least in their fight scenes, and frequently funny. In this,
they beat their Hollywood compatriots hands down: nowadays, a Hollywood
action film can't even be relied upon to deliver a good battle sequence or car chases, while even the worst of HK films can deliver a memorable fight. Iron Monkey, though, is one of the best HK films, according to those buffs who know, and I definitely agree; even from my uneducated vantage point, the film certainly looks superlative in its own way.
Along the way to theatrical wide release, Iron Monkey had to first make its way through video/DVD release to the usual audience for this type of thing, then was restored and shipped off to theaters when Yuen Woo-Ping's two well-known masterpieces of fight choreography, The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though directed by others, became well-known in part because of his fights. So Iron Monkey, which had gained a cult following, was restored and slightly reshaped by Miramax, which replaced the synthesizer score with an orchestral one, and cut out some of the cruder and more unnecessary comedy that mars HK films constantly. The film looks great, and Miramax's laudable decision to not dub the film into English makes it sound normal (even if they did dub it into Cantonese, ignorant white boy here don't care).
The film was promoted in HK as a sort of young Wong Fei-Hong movie (the hero of numerous HK film classics across generations, including Tsui Hark's Once Upon A Time In China franchise). It's 1859, and the young Wong (Tsang Sze-Man) accompanies father Wong Kei-Ying (Rongguang Yu, a reliable supporting fighter in HK films, but relegated to the extra-level role of Imperial Guard in Shanghai Noon) to the city of Chekiang from the home turf of Fu-Shan to pick up some medical herbs. Unfortunately, he gets mixed-up in the corrupt Governor Cheng's (veteran HK actor and film composer James Wong) quest to track down the disguised Iron Monkey, who robs the corrupt Governor by night and redistributes the wealth to the poor. You might think the fact that Dr. Yang (Donnie Yen, less well-known to Westerners than Jet Li or Jackie Chan, which is unjust considering he grew up in Boston; he directs, too) practices a uniquely socialistic form of medicine (grossly over-charging his rich patients and not charging his poor ones) would tip someone off, but I guess not. Dr. Yang and Kei-Ying become friends, but the latter must track down the Iron Monkey lest the Governor kill his son. The stage is set for many fights.
There's no malice in this movie, zero sadism: the fighters name their moves as they shout, and it looks like they're having a lot of fun. The audience did too: a diverse crowd of giggling teenage girls, HK film geeks, immigrants and random multi-plexers applauded once the bad guy had finally been disposed of. It helps to know a bit of the historical context of this film (battles in Taipei, for example); it fills out what you know about the characters, as in so many HK films. But this isn't about depth, it's about great fight scnes, and the film delivers over and over. If you like good kung-fu, you'll love this. An instant pop classic.
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