“Iron Monkey” may not have the beauty and artistry of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but it is “Dragon’s” critical acclaim and international commercial success that directly resulted in “Monkey’s” belated U.S. release.
Originally produced in 1993, “Iron Monkey” arrives stateside with a brand-new soundtrack, subtitles and Quentin Tarantino’s production credits. “Monkey” is archetypal of its genre, with an eponymous hero – a Robin Hood with Zorro’s flair for signature. Set in 19th-century China, he fights against a corrupt government by stealing from the provincial governor to give to the city’s the ever-increasing refugee population. Plagued by the Iron Monkey’s popularity and chivalry, the lecherous governor (he has nine wives) sends the famed warrior Wong Kei-ying in pursuit of the Monkey.
Several confrontations ensue with the Monkey (in disguise, and as his alter ego Dr. Yang). After Fei-hung, the son of a Shao-lin master, is rescued, Kei-ying and the Monkey ally against a corrupt royal magistrate and Shao-lin sect leader. This particular villain wields the “poisoned Buddha’s palm,” has the ability to command his sleeves to attack and can throw a grape through a human torso like a bullet.
The fight choreography is classic Yuen Wo Ping, best known in the U.S. for “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” While some of the choreography may feel familiar, there are several very original fight sequences, in particular, a sequence where the good guys battle against the evil Shao-lin monk while keeping their balance high atop burning pillars. Nearly as elaborate as their executions, the moves often have interesting designations; the young Fei-hung battles corrupt Shao-lin disciples with techniques like the “pole that sweeps away injustice”.
A hit in China, “Iron Monkey” was released on video in the U.S., but never on the big screen. Perhaps it has too much exposition for American audiences used to the straight-to-the-point fight sequences in Jackie Chan films and Americanized editing of other Chinese imports. While my Chinese is a little rusty, it is more than obvious that the translators took some liberties in certain areas of the dialogue. But it’s Kung Fu, not the dialogue that fills the seats.
In Hong Kong cinema, the Wong Kei-ying/Fei-hung stories are extremely prevalent. Tales of Fei-hung, a real patriot and folk hero, have been told in hundreds of Cantonese films, including “Once Upon a Time in China,” the film responsible for propelling Jet Li to stardom. The identity of Fei-hung is as familiar to Chinese audiences as Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corral is to American audiences.
“Iron Monkey” blends the universally familiar fable of the thief out for justice and a story about the youth of one of China’s most beloved folk heroes in a film that’s more action than art. Who knows how long the American public’s interest will be captivated by the Hong Kong imports; hopefully a few more films like “Iron Monkey” will make their way onto the big screen before audiences give up on reading subtitles.