If DVDs wore out like VHS did, my old Hong Kong Legends Iron Monkey DVD would’ve been degraded to the degree that it’d probably play more like a bootleg than a legitimate release. Everyone has movies like that, movies where you know you want to watch something but you don’t know what, so instead of fretting you merely reach out for one of your comfort movies. Now, knowing that I have watched Yuen Woo-Ping’s 90s classic at least a dozen times, how exactly do I give a balanced view? Honestly, I do not think I can but what I can do is express why it is such an important kung fu movie to me with a consideration beyond the number of times I have watched it.
In 1993, the kung fu movie was all but dead in their void was the golden era of Jackie Chan (and his peers) and the work they put out where contemporary action movies in which the lead practiced some vague martial art. Shaw Brothers were not making the 20 or 30 movies a year like they once did in the late 60s and 70s, they’d be lucky if they made the one. Golden Harvest, who produced Iron Monkey and courted international audiences by partnering with labels like the aforementioned Hong Kong Legends, where making modern movies for modern audiences. It is that very strategy that saw Jackie Chan become a worldwide Icon and Sammo follow not far behind. As profitable and broad as those 80s and 90s crime/action/martial arts movies where, there was still room for the occasional, traditional kung fu movie. Only instead of knocking out so many of these movies that they become difficult to distinguish from one another – I admit this as a Shaw Brothers fan, too – Golden Harvest only developed it when the script was right. Admittedly the contemporary stuff was questionable, look no further than the Category III movies that put out. Anyway, written (as part of a team) and produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Yuen Woo Ping, Iron Monkey is a simple but universally appreciable tale of a masked vigilante striking back at corrupt officials.
That sort of tale could be told in years gone by, however, if this was made during the 1970s it would have been overwrought with historical contexts telling of emperor’s, politics and clans a little bit too dense to fully grasp. Some, like 88 films House of Traps, is enjoyed best by ignoring all the attempts at contextualisation and approaching it as a pure exercise in genre film. Iron Monkey is pure. There is a doctor (Yu Rong-Guang) forced into fighting back against a corrupt official (James Wong), stealing money, gold and jewels to help the poor in doing that the official becomes desperate arresting anyone who practices Kung Fu or mentions the word Monkey. Among the arrested are Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his young son (the legendary Wong Fei-Hung (Angie Tsang Sze-Man) who claims he will arrest Iron Monkey to free those wrongly arrested. From that things escalate until Donnie Yen & Yu Rong-Guang go up against big bad, Yen Shi-Kwan. So pure is the plotting, I’d call Iron Monkey one of the best entry points for Martial Arts Cinema as it contains all that is good about these films without any of the awkward tropes or traditions for newbies to wrap their heads around. It is quite simply Kung Fu Robin Hood.
I’m not about the invoke the wrath of Poltergeist and the controversy of whether Tobe Hooper or Steven Spielberg directed it, however, there is a line to be drawn between that classic horror and this seemingly unrelated kung fu movie. On paper, Iron Monkey was directed by Yuen Woo-Ping and each and every one of the fight scenes ebbs and flows like any of his previous work, although just that little bit better. Nonetheless, Yuen Woo-Ping was not a visual director, a lot of his films looked very flat, a talent that never really registered as an issue as all of his films include a physicality that inspires wonder in all who see it. Tsui Hark is the total opposite, his films may be shallow but my word do they look fantastic. Iron Monkey looks fantastic as if it was shot by Hark. The cinematography is packed with iconic images, otherworldly lighting that sees the film have more in common with Zu Warriors than it does Drunken Master. And that is far from an issue, as I see it, combining the staging and visual panache of two Hong Kong directors at the very peak of their hefty powers is inspired and it is no wonder that it is considered one of the best kung fu movies ever made.
Being such a massive fan of the film, I expected that watching it again after so many years away would result in me in dawning upon the realisation that I was under the spell of nostalgia. No such luck. With all of its heart, wacky comedy, creative wire work, bravura choreography and two of the finest martial artists’ cinema have ever had, Iron Monkey has cemented a very special place in my heart. For that, I thank Eureka for this sparkling new extra-packed release – especially when it has never looked this good.