This week Eureka Video releases the classic 1993 martial arts film Iron Monkey on Blu-ray. It was originally released on DVD in the UK by Hong Kong Legends in 2001 but this version, by one of the best niche Blu-Ray distribution companies in the world, is probably the most complete and extras packed version so far.
The film was perhaps the first time I recognised the great Donnie Yen as an actor and here he shares the screen with Yu Rongkwong (also known as Ringo Yu). Yu may not be as well-known as Yen but he certainly matches him in style and acrobatic ability.
The story is simple. Yu plays Yang Tianchun, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine who uses the income he receives from rich patients to fund treatment for the poor. The local governance is corrupt and so, at night, Yang dresses in black and becomes the mysterious Iron Monkey, a Robin Hood type character who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. From the start he’s already well known to officials who are on the lookout for him, but when he steals gold from the Governor’s residence, things start to get serious. The Governor rounds up all the usual suspects, along with anyone else who looks suspicious to narrow down the search.
One of these suspects is Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), another physician who has just come to town with his son, Wong Fei-Hung. Because of his martial arts skills and the fact that he is an outsider, he is singled out as an obvious candidate for Iron Monkey. However, during the proceedings the real Iron Monkey turns up and Wong, in order to prove his innocence fights him. He proves to be the equal of the titular hero so the Governor holds his son hostage, forcing him to hunt down and capture Iron Monkey.
Wong ends up on the streets and, desperate for food and with the local population against him, he is taken in by Yang and his assistant/fiancée Miss Orchid. After an encounter with Hin-Hung, a corrupt official who has become the new governor, Yang is injured and Wong discovers that the man who had taken him in is in fact Iron Monkey. Yang and Wong must learn to trust each other and so they can take on the governor and rescue Wong Fei-Hung.
It goes without saying that Iron Monkey has incredible action and acrobatics throughout, however, few films can match its energy and vibrancy. Director Yuen Woo-Ping, who is probably best known in the West as the fight choreographer for the Matrix films, keeps the film zipping along with a light and deft touch. This of course is no surprise given that he directed some true Martial Arts classics such as Drunken Master (which, along with another Yuen directed film Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow helped launch Jackie Chan’s career), Tai-Chi Master (starring Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh) & True Legend.
Two highlights include the final battle – jumping from pole to pole as a fire rages around them in a frenzy of movement, like a violent ballet. The two doctors vs Hin-Hung. We have chains, nun chucks, sleeves (similar to Zhang Ziyi’s drum scene in The House Of The Flying Daggers but with added aggression) and of course hands and fists. If you’re looking for reality then look somewhere else, this is not meant to resemble real world physics. This is the fantastical, the extreme – wire assisted acrobatics which showcase the frenetic talents of the stars on display.
The second scene of note is very different. As Yang Tianchun returns back to his office with Miss Orchid the wind blows through the door sending piles of paper into the air. Yang and Orchid jump into action, floating through the air in a sublime fashion that shows the true beauty of Kung-Fu without the need of violence.
What stands out most about Iron Monkey however, is its humour which, at times, can be very broad indeed. In fact, on its initial release in the US, a lot of the humour was cut because there was a feeling that it somehow undermined the action. For me it doesn’t, instead it underlines the absurdity of the action, acknowledging the sense of unreality and helping us to accept the extravagance we are witnessing.
Also reduced in the original US release were the politics. The reason Yang takes on the mantle of Iron Monkey was to fight back against the corruption of the governing officials. Yang charges the rich for his services but offers it to the poor for free. The money he steals goes straight to the poor and for that, he becomes a folk hero even though the officials set out to portray him as a criminal. The subtitles for the initial release were even changed to reduce this context.
The original US release also cut out the significance of Wong Fei-Hung, Wong’s son (Angie Tsang). In some respects this is understandable as Wong Fei-Hung is not a well-known name in the west. In China he is a popular folk hero and has been subject of many films, including the Once Upon A Time in China films where he was played by Jet Li. For fans of the genre, the inclusion of this character creates a valuable connection with other films.
If there is one criticism I have heard of Iron Monkey it’s that it lacks the heart of Ang Lee’s Crounching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the beauty of Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers and the story is a mere coat hanger for the action. This was a claim made by none other than Roger Ebert who went on to add that Iron Monkey is for the fans and not for the cross-over audience. This however ignores the sheer fun and exuberance of the film. This was the martial arts film, along with Lee’s film, that introduced me to this genre and I believe that any fan of visually compelling cinema will enjoy it.
The picture quality on this new Eureka release is excellent, the action is smooth, the colours are wonderfully vibrant and the sound is crisp and clear. Not only has it been given the 2K restoration treatment but there are a lot of extras, including interviews with Donnie Yen, Yu Rongkwong, actress and stunt woman Li Fai and Angie Tsang. There is also footage of Li Fai and Tsang completing in the 2003 Wu-Shu Championship. This is particularly interesting as it shows us that Martial Arts is an art form that is not reliant on wires and fast editing. The performers are all highly talented athletes who dedicate countless hours to honing their craft. There is also a collector’s booklet featuring an essay by Michael Brooke.
This is an excellent release from Eureka that will hopefully find the film a bigger audience. For all the quality of Zhang’s and Lee’s movies the one thing they both lack is humour. Iron Monkey more than makes up for this. Watch it for the incredible fight scenes, the outrageous performances, the excellent direction and the broad humour. Iron Monkey is a must have for any lover of world cinema and action movies and gets a very strong recommendation from me.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 8/10
Iron Monkey is available now on Blu Ray in the U.K. courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.