Hong Kong, 1993
90 minutes, in Cantonese with English subtitles
Directed by: Yuen Wo-ping
Starring: Donnie Yen, Yu Rong-guang, Tsang Sze-man
With star, Donnie Yen, at the screening!!!
Sunday, July 8 @ 10:30pm (buy tickets)
This is how you do it. No, seriously, this is how you make a martial arts classic, and not just a martial arts classic, but a movie that is a lesson in how to deliver high-speed, high-impact, no-holds-barred entertainment, Hong Kong style. With IRON MONKEY, Yuen Wo-ping and his family deliver what might just be the greatest martial arts movie of the 90’s, a movie that perfectly encapsulates everything that was great about Hong Kong filmmaking at its peak, full of seriously surreal imagery dredged up from the collective unconscious of a freaky alien race: a monk grinning through a mouth full of dripping blood; a virgin nun assassin with a scaly, purple birthmark covering her face; masked men running up human bodies to perch precariously on their heads.
In a hick urban backwater the local Governor is splitting his time between playing “hide the abalone” with his nine wives and hunting down masked Robin Hood type, The Iron Monkey. A righteous guy who fights corruption with his assistant, Miss Orchid, Iron Monkey is actually Dr. Yang (Mainland martial artist Yu Rong-guang), a righteous guy who practices traditional medicine. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor brings Iron Monkey and Miss Orchid closer together, but with the impending arrival of an envoy from the Emperor sent to find out what’s up with this so-called Iron Monkey, they’re feeling the heat. Into all this stumbles Donnie Yen (in one of his best roles), playing Wong Kei-ying the father of legendary Chinese hero (and perennial Jet Li role) Wong Fei-hung. With him is young Wong himself (played by Tsang Sze-man, a real-life wu shu champ who is also a real-life 15-year-old girl).
All the monkey-looking people in town are rounded up and slated for gratuitous gubernatorial torture, including Wong Kei-ying and son. Noting his kung fu skill (which enables him to run up walls, fly through the air, and move faster than the camera lens can follow) the Governor strong arms Wong Kei-ying into going after the Iron Monkey, giving him just a few days to capture the simian crusader or his son, held hostage in a vermin-infested dungeon, is going to get a big brand planted in the middle of his face. This is a problem because Dr. Yang (aka Iron Monkey) and Miss Orchid are the only two folks in town who agree to help Donnie out of this mess. Father/son sacrifice, conflicted loyalties, secret identities, and rueful meditations on friendship ensue. An operatic rocket, IRON MONKEY runs its engines on 1930’s pulp brio, delivering a payload of wall-to-wall kung fu, grrl-fu, pole fighting, Iron Monkey chicanery, Buddha’s Palm, Virgin Stance Sword, tricks and traps that detonate right behind your eyes. Where a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was earnest and downbeat, IRON MONKEY is ebullient and ecstatic.
Running on all cylinders, irony is burned away like fat and replaced by pure kinetic pleasure – this is a hip hop symphony of supple wrists and elbows, snapping bouncy opponents through EZ-splinter doors, windows, and walls. The entire Yuen clan has always been impatient with the law of gravity and to them cinematic realism is just another annoying physical rule to be defied. The sight of Iron Monkey and Miss Orchid taking a lover’s stroll under their shared umbrella over perilous rooftops in a gentle summer rain, exchanging coy repartee, is as nuttily liberating as watching young Wong Fei-hung take out a street gang with an umbrella that’s invested with so much animation and personality you expect it to show up in the credits. Everything here is meant to entertain.
IRON MONKEY is a highly efficient delivery system for cinematic thrills. When entertainment becomes this accomplished it transcends mere movie-going and becomes a religious experience that cleanses the stink of a summer full of Hollywood megaplex misfires from our brains. This is movie-going stripped down to what matters: speed, thrills, disbelief suspended and shredded, brains spinning on their axels and smoke spewing out our ears. Gracefully breaking the bonds of cruel gravity and limiting realism, IRON MONKEY steps off the earth and dances in the air, immune to the mundane grind of our everyday reality. You may not like kung fu movies, or action movies, or subtitles, or foreign flicks, or lighter-than-air fantasy, or period movies, or masked crusaders, and that’s all fine and good. But if you’re a human being, you’ll love IRON MONKEY.