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Iron Monkey   B

Miramax Films

Year Released: 1993 (USA: 2001)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Yuen Wo Ping
Writers: Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang, Lau Tai Mok
Cast: Yu Rong-Guang, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze-Man, Yuen Shun-Yee, James Wong.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Scores of filmgoers congratulated themselves for "liking" foreign pictures after they sat down for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; they willfully ignored how American money, talent, and showmanship were largely responsible for Ang Lee's wire-fu epic. A U.S. resident since the 1980s, Lee knowingly geared his picture for Western audiences -- he knew Americans would feel safe watching Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, two faces already familiar here, soaring around like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Despite the mangled Mandarin voiced by Chow and Yeoh (who is actually more fluent in English), Crouching Tiger is a genuinely rousing experience, so it's difficult to fault Lee for catering to the habitual ethnocentrism that marks American filmgoing. More troubling, to me at least, is how many critics have recently been indulging that ethnocentrism, writing reviews that ignore significant details of world cinema. How many bothered to report that some Asian critics accused Lee of reinforcing the naïve, over-romanticized notions Americans have of the Far East?

These notions manifested themselves last September in ads for The Musketeer, which proudly informed us Yanks that the "original" fights were choreographed by "Hong Kong legend" Xiong Xin Xin. A lot of critics fell for it. Although most agreed that the bubblegum yarn is dreadful, many still singled out Xiong's efforts as "fresh," failing to detect that his stuntwork bluntly pilfers key sequences from classic Asian actioners. In particular, he swipes a duel upon vacillating ladders that Jet Li mastered 10 years ago for Once Upon a Time in China. This oversight is inexcusable, since that film is a martial-arts landmark, and certainly one of the best-known works by Tsui Hark, the superstar director of Hong Kong. Such neglect suggests many critics have ample knowledge of The Musketeer's press kit, but no real knowledge of Xiong's career, or of Asian cinema in general.

Similar disregard has been occurring all year. Perhaps it was sensible to write off Japan's Brother, the latest and slightest of Takeshi Kitano's honor-among-thieves epics, but a director of Kitano's caliber at least warranted a serious response. Few critics bothered to even discuss Tsui's Time and Tide, and fewer still recognized the influence of crucial Asian filmmakers upon his gunplay epic. Many called the violence "distinctive," missing how Tsui plainly regurgitated the same action aesthetic that Ringo Lam and Wong Kar-Wai better developed much earlier. Wong's own In the Mood for Love received good notices, but hasn't garnered the following it deserves. Far more miserable is how The Road Home, a color-soaked romantic drama from China's Zhang Yimou, was virtually ignored here in the States, despite being one of Zhang's most human, moving stories. It's disconcerting when Zhang and Wong, two of modern cinema's masters, are recklessly dismissed by those whose entire professional purpose is to steer audiences towards the art form's ideal exemplars.

Shimmering reviews notwithstanding, Iron Monkey does not exemplify the "best" Asian cinema has to offer -- but there's no denying its scruffy charm. Presumably, Miramax has finally brought the 1993 high-wire martial-arts fantasy to American screens in order to exploit the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Its pedigree is impressive. It boasts Hong Kong star Donnie Yen and was directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the man who choreographed both The Matrix and the ethereal stunts of Crouching Tiger. Less silly than Tai Chi Master and far superior to Drunken Master, it's easily my favorite Yuen-directed picture. Countless Hong Kong adventures feature an identical brand of rambunctious wire-fu, but what sets Yuen's version apart is the proficient dexterity of his flying, spinning warriors. With its fleet editing and balletic choreography, Iron Monkey is one of the most purely entertaining kung fu movies, particularly during the climactic showdown between fighters balanced on the tips of burning, toppling bamboo poles.

Although it's been available on DVD for years, I'm pleased that wide audiences have the opportunity to catch Miramax's new cut, new score, and new subtitles on the big screen -- but I'm still annoyed with the mainstream press, which has, once again, unjustly approached an Asian hit through stubbornly Western eyes. When Roger Ebert declares that Iron Monkey "is great-looking, slick and highly professional, but stops at that," he acknowledges his opinion is based upon a comparison to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Nearly every major American critic has made that same comparison. While I can understand the need to give readers a familiar title to compare to Iron Monkey, it also strikes me as a tad unfair, especially since Yuen intended to craft something quite different from Lee's austere feminist romance. If one is going to employ intertextual criticism, then a more suitable comparison is to other films within the same subgenre that Iron Monkey represents, the Wong Fei-Hung movie. Unfortunately, American critics have largely overlooked this vital point.

According to Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, authors of the popular Hong Kong cinema book Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head, "no individual has dominated the history, ethics, and culture of Chinese martial arts more than Wong Fei-Hung." Born in 1847, the real-life Wong learned traditional Chinese medicine and kung fu from his father, a celebrated martial artist. Wong himself became a respected Cantonese herbalist and anti-colonial revolutionary. He was also named one of the "Ten Tigers of Canton," a title bestowed upon the finest martial artists in the region. (Reportedly, he once defeated a gang of 30 men on the Canton docks.) After spending his life protecting the weak, sick, and poor, Wong died in 1924. Over the next 50 years he was elevated into a folk hero, his feats embellished in Chinese pulp novels, print serializations, and roughly one hundred films. For decades, "Wong Fei-Hung movies" were a staple of Asian cinema. Most of these featured Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong, but in 1978 Jackie Chan was cast in the buffoonish Drunken Master. Amending tradition (to embarrassing effect, I think), Chan depicted the activist doctor as an irresponsible, youthful lush. Later, Jet Li revitalized the subgenre by portraying Wong as a noble, tough, compassionate scholar in 1991's Once Upon a Time in China.

Aficionados of Hong Kong cinema will immediately identify Iron Monkey as a Wong Fei-Hung movie, and also a de facto prequel to Once Upon a Time in China. (Both were written and produced by Tsui Hark, and its Cantonese title, Siu Nin Wong Fei Hung Ji Tit Ma Lau, literally translates into Iron Monkey: The Childhood Years of Wong Fei Hung.) As a young boy, Wong (played by a gifted female martial artist named Tsang Sze-Man) travels with his father Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) to a village ruled by an evil governor (James Wong). Teaming with a hooded rebel hero named Iron Monkey (Yu Rong-Guang), the Wongs attempt to free the land from oppression.

In terms of story, there's nothing about Iron Monkey that's bold or novel, but when placed within its proper cultural context, the narrative's appeal expands considerably. Yuen abides by the conventions of Wong Fei-Hung folklore, and his film serves as an effective enhancement of that tradition; it's one of the subgenre's most agreeable entries. Regrettably, this is something that most American critics haven't explored. Rather than clarify the Wong Fei-Hung mythology, which is a central Asian cultural institution that must be understood to fully appreciate Iron Monkey, they have instead described these heroes as Robin Hood or Wyatt Earp figures -- as if Asians needed to appropriate Western idols as their own.

Review published 10.29.2001.

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