For what seemed like a long time, an incredibly awful time, Wuxia films, movies about Chinese martial hero’s, were treated as B-movies in the West. They were put on at specialist cinemas or shown during the insomnia time slot between 1 am – 5 am and often so poorly dubbed that it makes the whole “Do not want” meme look like Shakespeare. Prior to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), and with the exception of a few hard-core fans, the whole genre was dismissed as quirky Hong Kong/Chinese cinema, to be watched for a cheap laugh.

In doing so many films on a par with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero (2002) are only know by a few in the West.

Having undergone a 2k restoration Iron Monkey (1993) is out on Blu-ray from Eureka Classics.

Set in 19th Century Chekiang, the corrupt regional Governor Cheng Pak-Fong (James Wong) allows crime and poverty to flourish while exploiting refugees fleeing regional disasters. The opulent lifestyles of the elites are threatened by is Yang Tianchun (Yu Rongguang) a traditional Chinese doctor by day, and the masked Robin Hood figure Iron Monkey by night, aided by his friend Miss Orchid (Jean Wang). Growing desperate Pak-Fong orders the captain of his guards Master Fox (Yuen Shun-yi) to arrest everyone even remotely suspicious. This bodes ill for another martial artist and physician Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his young son Wong Fei-Hung (Angie Tsang) who are merely travelling through the district. Holding young Fei-Hung as a hostage, Pak-Fong orders Kei-Ying to hunt and capture the elusive Iron Monkey. As Kei-Ying’s hunt and respect for Iron Monkey grows, a new threat emerges as a traitorous Shaolin monk Hin-Hung (Yen Shi-Kwan) arrives to take charge of the region and kill Iron Monkey and anyone that gets in his way.

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Iron Monkey is actually the story of young Wong Fei-Hung. In real life, Fei-Hung was, like his father, physician and martial artist trainer who has become a folk hero in China, especially his home province of Guangdong. An important figure, the film is the fictionalised account of his childhood and what led him to become the man he would later become.

Normally when I review a film I have a notepad with me to jot down points and thoughts I have as I watch the film. I was that enraptured with Iron Monkey that when I was finished I realised I had written nothing down save “OHMYGOD HE KICK THE GUY THROUGH THE WALL!!!”

This is a positive.

As with many Wuxia films, the fight scenes in Iron Monkey should not be approached as the rough and tumble brawls in Western Cinema. That would sell them short. They’re closer to tightly choreographed dance pieces that flow across the screen in graceful, sweeping and poetic movements. There is a rhythm to each strike, each landed hit and blocked blow, the effects of each change the tempo of the fight. They tell you just as much about a character as their language and interaction. Tianchun’s craftiness and honourability are shown in his choice of fighting style, quick feints and non-lethal takedowns while Hin-Hung’s matches his personality, vicious and cruel.

Iron Monkey has the over the top acting from villains and background characters that are found in many Hong-Kong films.  While it tends to cause us in the West to laugh its pantomime edge serves the purpose of taking the sting out of the brutality of the fight scenes. Basically, it’s comic relief and fulfils the same purpose

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Beautifully shot, like many Hong-Kong films, the cinematography gives space and light to fight scenes and closeness with warmth with the interactions of the actors. The main characters have a genuine chemistry, Kei-Ying and Fei-Hung feel like father and son, one eager for his son to grow into a good and respectful man, the other desperate to impress his father. Between Kei-Ying and Tianchun there is a growing organic respect and understanding between the two while Fox and Orchid share a world-weariness to see the right things done.

The Blu-Ray comes with interviews from Donnie Yen, stuntwoman and actor Li Fai, Angie Tsang and others, a behind the scenes look at the choreography, Shadow Boxing – a featurette on Hong Kong action choreography, and footage from Li Fai and Angie Tsang at the Wu Shu Championships in 2003.

Iron Monkey is, at its heart, a Hong-Kong swashbuckling action film similar to the old Warner Bros. Robin Hood films. In fact, the character of Iron Monkey is superior to Robin Hood. Did Robin Hood ever clear out a room of guards armed only with his bare hands? No, he ran around a forest in Nottingham with a longbow. Like a muppet. With an American accent most of the time. So watch this instead.

Dir: Yuen Woo-ping
Scr: Tsui Hark, Cheung Tan, Tang Elsa, Lau Tai-Mok
Cast: Yu Rongguang, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Angie Tsang, James Wong, Yuen Shun-yi, Yen Shi-Kwa
Prd: Tsui Hark
DOP: Arthur Wong, Tam Chi-wai
Music: Richard Yuen
Country: Hong-Kong
Runtime: 90 minutes

Iron Monkey is available on Blu-Ray now.

By Pat Fox