Nothing makes for better cinema than monkeys. The Iron Monkey in this movie is actually some sort of nineteenth-century Chinese superhero, part Robin Hood, part Batman. He jumps around from rooftop to rooftop, stealing from the rich and corrupt governor of Canton, then giving what he steals to the local poor people.
Iron Monkey was produced by Tsui Hark, and it continues Hark's re-invention of folk hero Wong Fei-Hung that started in Once Upon a Time In China. Here, Wong is just a young boy, sort of a Chinese version of Bart Simpson. Unlike Bart Simpson, young Wong (Tsang Tze-man... actually a girl) can kick butt.
In this movie, Wong Fei-hung takes a back seat to his father Wong Kei-Ying, played by Donnie Yen. The two Wongs arrive in town just as the local governor is ramping up his search for the Iron Monkey. They're both taken into custody, and after it becomes obvious that Kei-Ying is a good martial artist, he is accused by the governor of being the Monkey. After all, the Monkey is a good martial artist, and so is Kei-Ying. So who else could be the Monkey? This seems to be the only movie in the history of the genre where it is assumed there are characters who don't know martial arts.
Just as this logic is put forward, the real Monkey shows up and disrupts the proceedings and then disappears. Kei-Ying is then charged with capturing the elusive Monkey or Fei-Hung will suffer.
So who is the Iron Monkey? Bruce Wayne. Hah, just kidding! He's actually the compassionate Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-guang), who runs a clinic. Yang and Kei-Ying become friends, naturally, and the movie poses the interesting moral question: Will Yang turn himself in to save Kei-Ying's son?
After setting all this up, the movie throws it out the window. Fei-Hung escapes captivity, and then Yang and Kei-Ying are given a common enemy in the form of The Monk, a disgraced Shaolin who breezes into town with his entourage of martial arts savvy monks and nuns.
"Why does that Dr. Freud
keep looking at me funny?"
Iron Monkey is a fun movie, even though the plot has the coherent logic of a train wreck. It sometimes seems as if director Yuen Woo Ping (Drunken Master, Wing Chun) is dead set on hitting every cliche that's ever been invented in the kung fu genre. Perhaps the most unwelcome part of the movie is the mistaken identity sub-plot, a plot device that we are beginning to suspect may be required in all HK movies by force of law. In this case, Yang and his female assistant Orchid dress up like Manchu scholar-officials in order to get into the Governor's office. Hilarious stuff, to be sure. Wouldn't it be great if just once somebody would see through the painfully obvious disguises that the heroes use? Especially the willowy Orchid (Jean Wang), who is pretending to be a man, complete with mustache.
Luckily, the large number of fights tend to take your mind off what is lacking in the story. There are several that stand out. In one scene, the young Wong Fei-Hung takes on a gang of shady types in an outdoor cafe. Wong uses a staff as well as any furniture that isn't bolted down to humiliate his larger opponents. Kei-Ying and Yang have a couple of entertaining dustups, though the second one is interrupted by the untimely intrusion of the Monk. Orchid has an opportunity to get medieval on some of the Monk's goons, when they try to "volunteer" her for the prostitution business that the Monk runs on the side.
The final fight (like many before it, heavy on wire work) is a stunning set-piece with Kei-Ying and Yang fighting the Monk over a sea of fire, supported only by upright wooden poles that are in turn burning down. The three fighters balance precariously on their toes, trying to knock each other into the flames. It never seems to occur to anybody to simply leave the burning building, but if anybody did think of that, it would make the ending less dramatic. And when the various principles start to throw burning poles at each other, we don't see anything phallic in it at all. Honest.
Special Update 10/11/2001
"Leave me alone! I don't know
anyone named 'grasshopper'!"
At this year's Dragon Con in Atlanta GA we had an opportunity to see Donnie Yen speak, and we personally got a chance to talk to him about his philosophy of filmmaking. Interesting stuff.
He talked about some of his upcoming projects. He's going to have a small role in the sequel to Blade, and he just finished working on a remake of Shurayuki Hime, more commonly known as Lady Snowblood in English.
We got to ask him about the little girl who played Wong Fei-Hung. We had always wondered why Tsui Hark chose this trans-gender casting. According to Yen, Tsui did this to be controversial, and to bring a certain softness to the character. He asked us if we thought it worked, but we hadn't seen the movie in years. D'oh! Next time we see an actor as cool as Donnie Yen, we're going to do our research.