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A Totally Different Animal: Why Iron Monkey Isn't The Next Crouching Tiger



Iron Monkey
Iron Monkey

Donnie Yen in Iron Monkey
Donnie Yen

Jean Wang in Iron Monkey
Jean Wang

Yan Yee Kwan
Donnie Yen and Yan Yee Kwan

By Simma Park

NEW YORK, 14 November 2001 - The American theatrical release of 1993's Hong Kong hit Iron Monkey is well-timed and welcome to both American audiences looking for good, escapist fun and to long-time martial arts movie fans. For the former, Iron Monkey delivers a simple and satisfying good vs. evil buddy story with mind-blowing action sequences and what may be the best villain entrance ever. For moviegoers already familiar with Hong Kong martial arts movies, most of whom will have already seen Iron Monkey, the film's American release is a welcome opportunity to see an old favorite on the big screen.

The stock kung fu folk hero is a renaissance man who, aspiring to the highest ideals of discipline and righteous conduct, excel in all areas of life. Here, two such men are all that stand between corrupt provincial governor Cheng (James Wong) and his oppressed people: Dr. Yang (Yu Rong Guang) who, with his assistant Orchid (Jean Wang) operates a clinic providing free food and medical treatment to the needy; and the mysterious Iron Monkey, a masked thief who employs his martial skill to bring about more equitable distribution of wealth in the province.

When renowned Hung Gar master and healer Wong Kei Ying (Donnie Yen) passes through town with his young son Wong Fei Hung (Tsang Sze-Man, in a bit of cross-gender casting), the governor takes the boy hostage and forces his father to pit his kung fu against the Iron Monkey's. To complicate matters, the ruthless Imperial minister Hin Hung (Yen Yee Kwan), a renegade Shaolin monk who, betraying his temple to the Manchu court, caused its destruction, arrives in the province with his degenerate henchmen and terrorizes the province in his own quest to capture the Iron Monkey. Wong Kei Ying and Dr. Yang soon realize that they share the same ideals, and band together to rescue Fei Hung and help the oppressed populace.

Miramax's ad campaign obviously capitalizes on the recent success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and upon action director Yuen Wo Ping's (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) newfound familiarity to American audiences. Audiences would do well to remember that one would not go into E.T. expecting Close Encounters, despite the fact that both films are actually directed by the same person and are both about extraterrestrials. Iron Monkey has much more in common with other more recent though less aggressively publicized theatrical releases of Hong Kong-produced period action films, such as 1991's Once Upon a Time in China (re-released in 2001) starring Jet Li and directed by Hark, and 1994's Drunken Master II (re-titled The Legend of Drunken Master for its 2000 American release) starring Jackie Chan and directed by Yuen. (In fact, all three films are about Wong Fei-hung—Iron Monkey's original title is Iron Monkey: The Young Wong Fei Hong—a Chinese folk hero and legendary martial arts master who is a Hong Kong cinema staple.).

To Iron Monkey's credit, audiences who enter the theater expecting Crouching Tiger will be surprised but, ultimately, pleased to find that the film has no art house aspirations but is instead a comic romp driven by thrilling action. This action, a blend of stunning fight sequences and effective physical comedy, is Iron Monkey's real strength. (Long-time fans of the movie are sure to be gratified by the enthusiasm of the audience's response to the action and to the many comic moments.) The film showcases some of Yuen Wo Ping's best choreography, with notable contributions from Donnie Yen, an action superstar and heartthrob in Asia whom Hollywood is currently eyeing as the next Jet Li or Jackie Chan. Wire work features prominently and is executed with great skill and humor, especially in the over-the-top final sequence which features fighting atop wooden posts in the midst of a raging fire. The jewels in the action, however, are the wireless fight scenes that display the raw atheticism and skills of the various actors—sequences that only the Hong Kong industry, with its unparalleled pool of martial arts-trained talent, could produce. Among the best of these is Yen's famed "no shadow kick scene" which he choreographed himself. Other especially notable performances come from Li Fai, a wushu champion and coach who plays the renegade Shaolin nun and steals every scene in which she appears, and Tsang Sze-Man, another top female wushu athlete, as the boy Wong Fei Hung.

Miramax has replaced the original low-budget soundtrack, which was kitschy and distracting, with new music that enhances the action. (Those who know the original will be grateful for the new soundtrack, as well as the overall improved sound and picture quality of this release.) The decision to subtitle the film is less justifiable. While the new subtitles are far superior to the confusing and often inadvertently funny subtitles on previously available video and DVD releases, the use of subtitles seems more a ploy to encourage comparisons to Crouching Tiger than a decision based on the artistic merits of the dialogue and acting. After all, many of the actors in the movie are dubbed over in the original Hong Kong release, a common practice in a genre that not only values physical skill over acting skill but also employs talent from regions and countries that speak different languages. (Lip-sync in this film does noticeably break down in places.) In Iron Monkey, reading the subtitles often interfered with observing the fight sequences and detracted from the movie's greatest technical accomplishment: the clarity of camera work and editing that enable the audience to appreciate the extraordinary choreography and execution of the fight sequences.

Hopefully, Iron Monkey will not suffer from criticism that accuses the film of falling short of Crouching Tiger's dramatic accomplishments. After all, Iron Monkey was never meant to be a film in the tradition of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger; it is among the best of a tradition that made it possible for Hollywood to conceive of a Matrix or a Crouching Tiger—a kind of excellent B-movie embedding four-star fight sequences in a predictable though satisfying plot with just-about-adequate dramatic performances.

While Iron Monkey gets only two and a half stars, it is among the most entertaining films screened in theaters this year; continued box office successes for films in this genre may open up more opportunities to sample more of an action-entertainment tradition refined to heights to which even Hollywood merely aspires.

Two and a half stars.

Related: The Iron Monkey Official Website

Simma Park is a writer and designer living in New York. She writes regularly on film for Culturekiosque.

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