Iron Monkey

You may be surprised to hear that I had never seen IRON MONKEY (1993) until now. I rented it many years ago but it turned out to be some Miramax dubbed and chopped version, so I decided to hold off, and I guess I got sidetracked. Now, upon the occasion of a new blu-ray release, I finally watched it. So I’m happy to be the last to tell you this is a straight up martial arts classic!

It’s directed by Yuen Woo-ping (he followed it with TAI CHI MASTER and WING CHUN – that’s a hell of a trilogy!) and written and produced by the prolific Tsui Hark. I could also say “the visionary Tsui Hark” or “the lovable weirdo Tsui Hark,” but I said “prolific” this time because THE EAST IS RED and ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV (which he wrote) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA III and GREEN SNAKE (which he wrote and directed) all came out that same year.

The titular Iron Monkey (Yu Rongguang, TSUI HARK’S VAMPIRE HUNTERS) is a Zorro-meets-Robin-Hood-meets-kung-fu folk hero known for leaping around on rooftops at night, stealing the ill-gotten gains of corrupt government officials, and leaving his loot as gifts for refugees and the poor. Our story begins with the authorities battening down the hatches to catch Iron Monkey if he comes for the new governor (James Wong, TIGER ON BEAT), who is cowering in a bed with his mistress (Cheung Fung-lei) and a net set up for protection. But Iron Monkey flips in in his black costume and gaiter and defeats the guards and Shaolin monks guarding the governor. (He either implies the monks are imposters or sell outs, I’m not sure which.) He gets the gold and escapes through the ceiling. Don’t fuck with Iron Monkey.

He’s got a set up kinda like Batman or the Green Hornet. During the day he’s Yang Tianchun, a respected member of the community because he’s a traditional physician who treats those who can’t afford it for free and overcharges those who can afford to be overcharged. His Alfred and/or Robin is Miss Orchid (Jean Wang, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV and V), who he rescued from a brothel and I believe is in love with. She aids him at the clinic and in his night time activities, even sometimes joining him on the roof with the same black uniform.

Iron Monkey also has sort of a Commissioner Gordon named Constable Fox (Yuen Shun-Yi, Woo-ping’s brother and co-choreographer). He’s buddies with Yang and he seems to be too dumb to catch on that he’s Iron Monkey, but possibly he just acts that way.

With an Imperial official expected to visit soon, the governor orders a crackdown on anyone with any ties to Iron Monkey, so the cops round up people doing monkey kung fu, selling things having to do with monkeys, saying the word monkey, and they even arrest an actual monkey (I like that joke). While this is going on, another respected physician and martial artist, Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen between NEW DRAGON GATE INN and BUTTERFLY AND SWORD) is in town, visiting from Foshan with his young son. Some guys try to rob him and he kicks their asses so well that he too is arrested as an Iron Monkey suspect.

Kei-ying’s son is played by a 13-year-old girl, Angie Tsang, so I guess this movie will be illegal soon in some parts of America, but it works really well because she was a member of the Hong Kong national wushu team and acquits herself well in the fight scenes. As you might have guessed, she’s playing the non-fictional folk hero Wong Fei-hung, portrayed by Jackie Chan in the DRUNKEN MASTER movies and Jet Li in the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series (which some say this is a prequel to). Fei-Hung is important here because the sadistic governor threatens to brand him to get Kei-ying to confess to being Iron Monkey. And even though the real Iron Monkey appears and saves the kid, Kei-ying puts up an impressive fight against him and then offers to capture him in exchange for letting the other prisoners go. The governor agrees, but keeps the kid as collateral.

(My favorite detail in that scene is that Iron Monkey slices off one of the governor’s eyebrows, and the governor is embarrassed and keeps covering it with his hand.)

Once he’s freed, Kei-ying goes to buy some noodles, and the merchant asks if he’s the guy who fought Iron Monkey. He nods bashfully, like a celebrity being asked for his autograph, but it’s the opposite – now the guy refuses to sell him noodles. Another guy won’t sell him rice and a third guy gets pelted for trying to clandestinely sell him one dumpling at an inflated price. This town doesn’t like narcs!

But he hasn’t eaten in two days. If only there was someone to look after the poor around here. Oh, wait – there is! Miss Orchid sees him about to eat food he found on the ground so she lets him into the clinic and cooks soup for him. He also participates in the cooking and meets Yang, having no idea, of course, that these are the people he’s after and that they’re being so kind and hospitable to him despite knowing that. I like when she warns him they stay up late.

One funny thing Iron Monkey and Miss Orchid do is go to the governor pretending to be the Imperial official and his assistant. Iron Monkey just acts like a total entitled asshole, berates them and gets more of their treasure. So later when the real official, a former Shaolin monk called Hin Hung (Yen Shi-Kwan, THE HEROIC TRIO), shows up and takes over, they look like total jackasses. I think it’s funny that Iron Monkey’s disguise (bald head, long black beard, giant eyebrows) looks very similar to the actual guy who shows up, like it’s easy to guess what this type of asshole is gonna look like.

At the jail, little Wong Fei-hung gets sick, and Constable Fox arranges to have him stay and be cared for at Yang’s clinic. As long as he’s there they teach him some martial arts. It’s like Forrest Gump showing Elvis all his moves.

Iron Monkey and Kei-ying are both injured in separate fights with Hin-hung and his men, they share medicinal advice, and inevitably Kei-ying learns of Yang’s secret identity, realizes he’s the good guy, and joins him. Or, from the point-of-view of The Man, is radicalized by him. He even puts on the costume!

Hin-hung’s men also attack Miss Orchid at the clinic, and she begins to hand them their sorry asses, except they drug her. Wong Fei-hung attacks and helps her escape. Good kid. I’m proud of that boy.

For the finale, Iron Monkey and his fellow black-clad doctor battle Hin-hung while balancing on top of a bunch of burning wooden poles. It’s wonderful. Action-wise the whole movie is Yuen operating at the top of his game – that beautiful symphony of fighters flipping and gliding through, and then sometimes cracking, their wooden surroundings. Nimbly hopping from roof to roof, dropping from rafters, flipping and twirling, fighting with long wooden poles, umbrellas, torches, doing the splits and dropping to the ground when a low blow is needed. When they swing and miss, their fists and feet tend to smash through nearby furniture or structures, even causing roofs to collapse.

They seem to enjoy “the floor is lava” type games – leaping from table to table, or from bald head to bald head, or throwing a stack of papers in the air and then flying around gathering them all before they hit the ground. Hin-hung knows the Buddha Palm that leaves a poisoned, hand-shaped red mark on your skin, and yells “Flying sleeves!” when the sleeves of his robe extend like Mr. Fantastic’s arms. It’s funny to read old user reviews where even people who liked it complain about unrealistic wirework or undercranking. I’ve never understood those people who like kung fu movies except for the best parts. I guess they didn’t read the sign on the door, but realism is as unwelcome here as greed is. Fuck off, realism, you bootlickin sonofabitch!

That said, as with most of my favorite kung fu movies, the story is even more important than the action. The fights are the ritual, the story is the sermon. When Yuen’s engine is really blasting, like this, his overall storytelling is as energetic and solidly constructed as his choreography. IRON MONKEY has great pacing, the occasional humor is well integrated, and its mythical heroes really captured my imagination. I don’t think it’s ever explicitly stated that Iron Monkey and Orchid are a couple, but the life partner type chemistry between them is strong and beautiful. I guess some people say the same about Batman and Robin. Anyway, I support their cause and if they need, like, a Nightwing or whatever, I would be interested in interviewing. (I would require quite a bit of training, to be clear.)

P.S. Surprisingly this was only nominated for one Hong Kong Film Award – Best Action Choreography, and it lost to FONG SAI YUK. It was arguably pushed out by competition like Ronny Yu’s THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, which won three awards that year, but the big categories went to the romance C’EST LA VIE, MON CHÉRI.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 16th, 2023 at 11:36 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Martial Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Iron Monkey”

  1. This is one of the all time greatest, a movie our whole family can and does plunk down to watch together at least once a year. I also found it to be an amazing gateway into HK film for newbies – when it first came out in the states I remember running around the UT Austin student co-op I was living in trying to round people up – “Trust me, you have to see this movie!” And now that I think about it, it was probably my kids’ first martial arts movie aside from Kung Fu Panda. It’s definitely the movie they show their friends to try and indoctrinate them.

    This is just such a whirlwind of story and themes twisting around each other and building to something greater than the sum of the parts: honor, family, power, love, friendship… in the context of one amazing fight scene after another. The kid’s first fight with the umbrella in the marketplace is one of my favorites. And everything with the terrifying female henchperson.

    Some small, wonderful moments that always stand out: The cooking scene, including showily slicing noodles off a ball of dough from across the courtyard… Miss Orchid’s badass nonchalant flip of her garment to perfectly gust a sheet of paper up into her hand… and [SPOILER] when the evil woman lackey catches a bad one by almost but not quite successfully parrying Iron Monkey’s attack toward the start of the final epic fight.

    And a moment that I don’t think is in the US version, when the villagers are debating whether to save their rice for Iron Monkey (so much great food related business in this movie!) and the little kid just plants their face in the rice while the grownups argue…


  2. Really hope this recent batch of Yuen Woo-Ping directed films is leading up to a review for what’s maybe his magnum opus, the wtf was that hook it to my veins insanity that is THE MIRACLE FIGHTERS.
    Last I checked it was streaming in pretty great quality on Hi-Yah!

  3. That was not in my plans, keepcoolbutcare, but I’ll add it to my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Second Ben C. Absolute Stone Cold Classic. I watch it a couple of times every year.

    Frequently copied, rarely bettered.

  5. I’m always a bit scared when I see someone writing about a movie from my Top 10 list. But I soon realized that I didn’t need to be when it’s Vern who does the reviewing. Great piece about a great movie, Vern.

  6. Wow so glad you got to experience this for the first time. I had not heard it’s considered a prequel to OUATIC, though I’ve always meant to see other Wong Fei-hung movies outside that franchise. I have a non Weinstein dvd but need to get that new Blu-ray.

  7. There seems to be two schools when it comaes to Wong Fei-hung movies. You have the old and wise doctor who can beat up the whole town, and then there’s the young and reckless student who doesn’t know that much kung fu and who constantly fights with his father. In this one he’s sort of a hybrid. He’s very young, but seems to already know how to fight and he’s one quite good terms with his father. And he most certainly don’t drink 98% alcohol to get the drunken effect. On my facebook page Pegs i PysjamaS I have reviewed about a dozen of the best Wong Fei-Hung movies outside of the 6 produced by Tsui Hark.

  8. You know it’s a good review when it gets you excited to watch a movie you’ve seen half a dozen times again.

  9. Shout Factory is offering the Tiger Cage Trilogy on Blu-Ray in May. It seems like the kind of thing that’d be up my alley (Yuen Woo-Ping, Donnie Yen) but I’ve actually never heard of it before (I never claimed to be a cinephile). So, any good?

  10. The TIGER CAGE trilogy, like the IN THE LINE OF DUTY Quadrilogy, both series tending to bleed into one another thanks to recurring cast members featuring in both, are essentially Action Cop Thrillers. They feature blistering action and tonal shifts from goofball comedy to unsettling nihilism so severe they frequently induce whiplash. In other words…Classic HK Cinema.

    TIGER CAGE 1 & 3 actually go into pretty grim crime noir-ish territory.

    The former is an INFERNAL AFFAIRS-style tale of dirty cops, shifting allegiances and betrayals. It has Martial Arts Supremo Donnie Yen in a small role and non-Martial Artists Jackie Cheung, Simon Yam and Dodo Cheng in the lead, thankfully propped up by Woo Ping’s choreography for the fights and their own considerable acting chops for the rest.

    The latter is probably the darkest, with a dedicated cop trying to take down a sleazy tycoon and is rewarded by getting blown up, surviving the explosion but disfigured Phantom Of The Opera-style while his girlfriend ends up being the tycoon’s mistress. He then proceeds to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, sadly unaided by DARKMAN’s arsenal of prosthetics but fortunately, a shit ton of flying fists and kicks.

    Sandwiched between the 2 is the more conventional and understandably far more popular TIGER CAGE 2 since it has Donnie Yen front and center with a 30 minute climax featuring some of the most jaw droppingly awesome fights put on screen, culminating in a Yen Vs Robin Shou throwdown, so that’s your IP MAN vs LIU KANG fantasy taken care of.
    It also means wading through about 45 minutes of “comedy” hijinks as Yen is hand-cuffed to the gorgeous Rosamund Kwan (13th Aunt herself from the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA movies) who is forced to play the HK version of Willie Scott from TEMPLE OF DOOM. She’s frequently shrill and constantly whiny, but thankfully Kwan still looks utterly gorgeous even when she’s utterly useless.

    Look, if you need a taste from a bygone era of batshit, bravura film-making from an industry that simply isn’t doing it today (I’d say Yen’s recent RAGING FIRE is a last gasp) , I’d say the TIGER CAGE box set is a must-have.

  11. Thanks, that’s very helpful.

    I think the last five years of the MCU has given me a tolerance for goofy comedy in a story that should be serious, so as long as my tight-jawed tolerance is rewarded with a huge kickfest eventually…

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