If Asian martial arts movies interest you even a little bit, you’re going to want to see “Iron Monkey.” Not only that, you’re going to want to see it more than once.
Of course, if you’re a true devotee of the genre, you know all about this 1993 Hong Kong film even though it’s never had a U.S. theatrical release. Directed by the legendary action master Yuen Wo Ping, it is preceded by a reputation for astonishingly acrobatic fight scenes, a reputation the film completely justifies.
Before “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” both graced with Yuen-choreographed battle sequences, went through the roof, no one believed Chinese-style martial arts would play for American audiences, so “Iron Monkey” went straight to ancillary markets. Now, spruced up via a restored print, new subtitles, a more expressive James Venable score and a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” credit, the film is ready to astound the multitudes.
With fun as its watchword, “Iron Monkey” is a throwback to the simple, fondly remembered Saturday matinee-style adventures. Although its action is quite sophisticated, its story line, filled out (unlike “Crouching Tiger’s”) with slapstick humor and burlesque characters, couldn’t be broader or more basic.
“Iron Monkey” is set in China in 1858, apparently a grim time when corrupt officials and greedy merchants preyed on impoverished refugees. That’s especially true in the city of Chekiang, where a rapacious governor (James Wong) is hoarding food supplies and spending all his time cavorting with his nine wives. The people cry out for a Robin Hood-type savior and, fortunately, one arises.
That would be the Iron Monkey (Yu Rong-Guang), a lithe individual, dressed all in black, so powerful that no trap can hold him, so audacious that he shaves off one of the governor’s eyebrows just for fun, so clever that bumbling chief of security Fox (Yuen Shun-Yi, the director’s younger brother) hasn’t a hope of capturing him.
Although no one in the city so much as suspects, the Iron Monkey’s day job is as ace healer Dr. Yang, an ambidextrous herbalist who can examine two patients simultaneously and hand out such diagnoses as “you’re oversexed and your thyroid is weak” while his assistant, the serene Miss Orchid (Jean Wang), dispenses soothing ginseng tea.
The plot thickens ever so slightly when Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), a herbalist from another city, passes through town with his son Wong Fei-Hong (played by a young actress, Tsang Sze-Man). The evil governor imprisons the son and won’t release him until the senior Wong, a noted martial artist and inventor of the legendary Shadow Legs kick, finds and captures the Iron Monkey.
Although the script (written by producer and Hong Kong mainstay Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang and Lau Tai Mok) is filled with this kind of silliness, it’s so unassuming it’s easy to get into the spirit of things. The action, after all, is what we’re here for, and the action rarely pauses to take a breath.
For if the plot is largely comic operatic, the fighting, as always in these movies, is balletic rather than bloody. Men, women and children serve as flying combatants and are given all manner of props, from chains and iron balls to shrouds and sacks of grain, to fool around with.
What places Yuen Wo Ping’s work in “Iron Monkey” on an especially high level, however, is the playful way he considers all movement to be fair game. The two herbalists make like Iron Chefs as they slice and dice vegetables before cooking dinner, and young Fei-Hong does fine things with an open umbrella.
Most memorable is the sequence in which Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid, returning to the drafty clinic, glide through space as elegantly as Astaire and Rogers to snare errant papers the wind has blown into the air. It’s a graceful symphony of movement of a kind visible nowhere else but here.
Once “Iron Monkey’s” true villain, a renegade monk (Yen Yee-Kwan) who’s mastered the deadly Buddha’s Palm, enters the picture, the battles get more serious, with participants shouting out names of moves (Shaolin Fist, Grappling Hands, the always effective Flying Sleeve) like callers at a country dance. The climactic duel, fought on wooden poles over a sea of flames, is audaciously choreographed. This is formula raised to the level of art, and the results are simply exhilarating.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for martial arts action/violence and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: The violence is balletic and almost completely bloodless.
Yu Rong-Guang: Iron Monkey/Dr. Yang
Donnie Yen: Wong Kei-Ying
Jean Wang: Miss Orchid
Tsang Sze-Man: Wong Fei-Hong
Yuen Shun-Yi: Chief Fox
James Wong: Governor
Yen Yee-Kwan: Royal Minister
Miramax Films, Media Asia, Golden Harvest and Quentin Tarantino present an L.S. Pictures Ltd., Film Work Shop production, released by Miramax Films. Director Yuen Wo Ping. Producer Tsui Hark. Executive producers Raymond Chow, Wang Ying Hsiang. Screenplay Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang, Lau Tai Mok. Cinematographers Arthur Wong, Tam Chi Wai. Editors Angie Lam, Chan Chi Wai. Costumes Bo Bo Ng. Music James Venable. Production design Ringo Cheung. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
In general release.