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DVD SAVANT

Savant Short Review:

Iron Monkey


Iron Monkey
Miramax
1993 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 85 min. / Siunin Wong Fei-hung tsi titmalau
Starring Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Yee Kwan Yan, James Wong, Hou Hsiao, Sze-Man Tsang, Sai-kun Yam, Shun-Yee Yuen, Fai Li
Cinematography Arthur Wong
Production Designer Ringo Cheung
Film Editor Chi Wai Chan, Angie Lam
Original Music Richard Yuen
Written by Tai-Muk Lau, Cheung Tan, Pik-yin Tang and Hark Tsui
Produced by Hark Tsui, (Quentin Tarantino)
Directed by Woo-ping Yuen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An informative response (with many corrections, actually)
from writer and HK film expert John Charles,
below.

This delightful martial arts feast was given a big release last fall, 8 years after it was made in Hong Kong, together with an audio remix and an effects upgrade. But it hasn't been redubbed, nor, if the IMDB is to be believed, recut from its original form, a perfect combo in Savant's book. It's fast, fun, and full of beautifully-filmed action and comedy that would have Buster Keaton clapping.

Synopsis:

Chekiang, China, 1858. Local Governor Cheng (James Wong) keeps his 9 mistresses by hoarding the public food supply and selling it for a profit. Rebelling against this tyranny is the mysterious Iron Monkey, a martial arts master and Robin Hood of the hour: Governor Cheng's head of security, Master Fox (Sun-Yee Yuen) can't find the bandit because by day he's the kindly Dr. Yang (Ronguang Yu), loved and respected by all, who runs a clinic with the help of the beautiful Orchid Ho (Jean Wang), a woman he redeemed from a life of prostitution. Into this picture comes Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), a martial arts master from afar travelling with his equally adept son Wong Fei-Hung (Tze-Man Tsang). The Governor is arresting everyone who could possibly be the Iron Monkey, and the travellers fall into his trap: Wong Kei-Ying must capture the bandit to get his son out of prison. What's worse, he becomes a guest in the house of Dr. Yang, the man he must capture.

Maybe there is hope for Miramax yet, as Iron Monkey appears not to have been chopped up, as has been the norm for other Weinstein import victims like, Como Agua Para Chocolate. Purists will want to hear the original's sound effects, and see the (presumed) wires that were removed by US digital effects companies Freeze Frame, Pixel Magic, and MetroLight ... in all fairness, movie history is going to become confused when later generations see a 2001 level of digital magic in a 1993 movie.  1

But that's not what you'll be thinking while watching Iron Monkey. Instead, the following thoughts will come to mind:

1) Chinese filmmaking is the equal of any country's . No more grainy 16mm pan 'n scan prints with tawdry production values. This picture looks great, is cut better than American action movies (no MTV self-abuse here), and the script and acting are tops.

2) Chinese have a wonderful sense of humor. I suppose America at large discovered that Chinese were warm and loveable with Jackie Chan; here we discover witty film comedy, the likes of which haven't been seen in the US for a long time. The humor is warm, story-driven, and based on character instead of shock value, snide put-downs, or audience intimidation.

3) Along with much of the rest of Chinese action cinema I've seen, the picture practically rediscovers genre innocence - unlike Japanese Samurai films, that seem to be modeled more on the cynical Spaghetti westerns. Iron Monkey's little drama of the righting of wrongs by daring heroes harkens back to silent Westerns, with admirable heroes (one is even a master chef) and colorful, hissable villains. Hardly anybody even dies, and it feels absolutely right.

4) The production values are tops - not just the photography, but the sets and costumes too. All the settings have excellent atmosphere without undue fussiness or 'exotic' touches. For us Americans, at least, the texture of the film evokes a new world of unfamiliar genre trappings.

And finally, 5) The entertaining action in Iron Monkey makes you think of Cirque du Soleil, not a car wreck. Even without the celebrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fantasy wirework, it's obvious that the stars of this show are dervishes extraordinaires, capable of amazing feats. The show makes you feel like jumping around the room, or at least aping the hand clasp gesture the Chinese gentlemen use as a respectful greeting.

The cast does a fine job of portraying virtue and decency without straining for effect or begging for sympathy. The script affords most everyone a measure of respect, including the ineffectual 'security chief' who indeed gets to be a hero-type for a few moments near the end. The villain is almost as funny. His magical sleeve-weapons that wrap victims up, and smash holes in walls, are perfect Saturday-matinee stuff, if we still had Saturday matinees.

There are more 'fight' highlights than can be counted, but the finish is a topper that sees the combatants balancing atop a grid of poles, while a fire burns below. A caption saying 'don't try this at home', is completely unnecessary. The physical unlikelihood of each situation is overcome by the stunt arrangers figuring out not a couple of gags to go with the situation, but scores of them. It gets to be mind-boggling - hence the Buster Keaton comparison. These setpieces are exhilarating to watch, and I'm told audiences in theaters frequently applauded them.


Miramax's DVD of Iron Monkey shows clearly that these Hong Kong movies can look super when properly transferred. I'm hoping I'm not going to learn about some content atrocity performed on the original show, because what's here is splendid.

Miramax has two nice extras, a pair of short interviews nicely illustrated with clips from Hong Kong martial arts movies familiar and arcane. Quentin Tarantino promoted the American refurbish and re-release of Iron Monkey, and he provides a nice introduction for non-experts like myself. He also spends more time talking about the genre and less about himself, and thus comes off better than usual. He asserts that the charm of these films is their lack of American hip sophistication, and that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opened US eyes to the wonders of Hong Kong Cinema and made the release of an eight-year-old movie practical. Star Donnie Yen also weighs in with a nice chat on how he came to be the protege of Woo-ping Yuen, and clues us in to the fact that the young hero is supposed to be a legendary (or real) martial arts hero as a young boy. A third welcome extra is a 'score medley' of Richard Yuen's evocative music.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Iron Monkey rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Quentin Tarantino and Donnie Yen interviews, score medley
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: April 6, 2002


Footnotes:

1. Naturally, Savant's imagination turns to Science Fiction: I'm so sick of seeing wires in 1953's War of the Worlds, that it would be a kick to get them all removed ... and really confuse film history.
Return

2. An informative response from writer and HK film expert John Charles, 4/10/02:
Hi Glenn: Liked your Iron Monkey review. A couple of corrections, though. Miramax has indeed re-cut the picture, dropping about four minutes and, while their English subtitles are a huge improvement over the incoherent nonsense found on the original HK 35mm prints and video releases, they are not always accurate. Can't name them off the top of my head but there are instances where the new subs do not at all reflect what is being said by the actors onscreen. Also, you mentioned composer Richard Yuen at the end of the review. This is yet another IMDB mistake; William Woo and Johnny Yeung did the original music. It's actually a moot point anyway, as Miramax inserted an entirely new soundtrack by American composer James L. Venable. - John Charles

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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