Combustible Celluloid Review - Iron Monkey (1993), Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang, Lau Tai-mok, Yuen Woo-ping, Yu Rong Guang, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze-man, James Wong, Yee Kwan Yan, Yuen Shun-Yee
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With: Yu Rong Guang, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, Tsang Sze-man, James Wong, Yee Kwan Yan, Yuen Shun-Yee
Written by: Tsui Hark, Elsa Tang, Lau Tai-mok
Directed by: Yuen Woo-ping
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for martial arts action/violence and brief sexuality
Language: Cantonese/Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 86
Date: 09/03/1993

Iron Monkey (1993)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Banana in Fist

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hong Kong film officially began to invade America as of 1996, when Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx and John Woo's Broken Arrow, both scored top slots on the box office list. Sadly, the former was shortened and dubbed and the latter was a poor example of Woo's kinetic, operatic brilliance.

Many of us knew about these quick-witted, imaginative films from before and found the new acceptance a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it would be easier to find our favorite films, but on the other, they'd been co-opted by the mainstream. This phenomenon culminated in last year's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a beautiful and slow-moving martial arts film with gorgeous choreography and sluggish, Americanized storytelling. It gave mainstream critics something they were looking for, a prestigious kung-fu film that they could be officially excited about and not worry about being chastised for admiring a "lesser" film genre.

That's why the new Miramax version of the 1993 Hong Kong release Iron Monkey comes at the perfect time -- it's the real thing, unfussed and unfettered. On the strength of Crouching Tiger, Miramax has thankfully not dubbed Iron Monkey, but given it new subtitles, as well as adding a rousing new Crouching Tiger-like score (despite the hip hop music in the TV ads and trailers). Finally, Iron Monkey is directed by famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, the man responsible for the great fight scenes in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger. Without an Ang Lee around to slow things down and plug story holes with lovely scenery, Yuen is free to pick up the pace and deliver a wonderful, breezy, precision movie. It's a must-see.

Those familiar with Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China will recognize Iron Monkey as the story of the young Wong Fei-hung, the famous Hong Kong folk hero played as an adult by Jet Li (and also by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master films). As a lad, Wong Fei-hung (Tsang Sze-man) travels with his father Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) to an Eastern China village circa the mid-19th century. There an evil governor (James Wong) rules the land, but a mythical folk hero, the Iron Monkey (Yu Rong Guang), arises to defend the meek. After a false start, young Wong Fei-hung and his father join forces against the governor and his evil minions.

But what we really care about here is the fight scenes, and they're spectacular. I went into Iron Monkey a little hesitant because I was not familiar with any of the actors. But within minutes I was hooked and grinning like a madman. One early scene has the Iron Monkey and his lovely female assistant (Jean Wang) using their high-flying kung fu to gather a sheaf of papers strewn about by the wind. It's a dazzling and breathtakingly beautiful moment. Later Director Yuen gives us the real thing, one outstanding fight scene after another, culminating in a truly remarkable scene with the combatants balancing on the tips of burning wooden posts.

Legendary Hong Kong producer, writer and director Tsui Hark turns here up with producer and screenplay credits, making Iron Monkey an official-unofficial prequel to Once Upon a Time in China. It deserves the honor. Iron Monkey both out-crouches and out-hides Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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