Thanks to his justly lauded work as action choreographer on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, director Yuen Wo Ping is among the most famous creators of Hong Kong action in the U.S. In the wake of the latter film's astonishing success, Miramax, with a prod from Quentin Tarantino, has wisely reissued Yuen's 1993 Iron Monkey, previously seen in the States only in Chinese neighborhood theaters and a few Hong Kong film festivals. Even more wisely, the company has made minimal changes to the original, so few that all but the most nitpicky purists are likely to be pleased.
Iron Monkey is a deliriously compact stew of many of the qualities that made film buffs go berserk over Hong Kong cinema in the early '90s. It's funny, heroic, exaggerated and, most of all, energetic; the film speeds along as though afraid to lose the audience's attention for even a moment.
Set in Zhejing Province in 1858, the film is essentially Robin Hood and Zorro Meet Young Wong Fei-Hong at the Shaolin Temple. When a greedy governor (James Wong) exploits the starving citizens of his region, a masked hero emerges to save the day. Known as the Iron Monkey, he skips and flies over rooftops at night, eluding both the police and a mercenary band of corrupt Shaolin monks, in order to redistribute the governor's wealth among the people. Chief Constable Fox (Sunny Yuen Shun-Yee, one of the director's several performing siblings) confides his frustration over Iron Monkey to the only man in town who couldn't possibly be the masked avenger -- gentle, fearful Dr. Yang (Yu Rong-Guang). Of course, the meek exterior is a put-on: We know from the very beginning that Dr. Yang is the Iron Monkey.
After one of Iron Monkey's most daring capers, the essentially good-hearted Fox is ordered to round up every possible suspect -- anybody who looks like a monkey, whose name sounds like "monkey"; he even arrests an actual monkey. Among the innocents pulled in for torture and questioning are Cantonese visitors Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) and his ten-year-old son, Wong Fei-Hong, played by Tsang Sze-Man, an extraordinary little female wushu champ. (Wong Fei-Hong will grow up to be the hero of the Drunken Master and Once Upon a Time in China films.) When the real Iron Monkey shows up at the inquisition, the governor has to release most of the suspects, but, having witnessed Wong Kei-Ying's fighting prowess, he decides to hold Fei-Hong hostage until Kei-Ying captures his nemesis.
The elder Wong is almost annoyingly virtuous, a true believer in the law who zealously sets out to nab his prey; he is baffled when the townspeople, all fans of Iron Monkey, refuse to speak to him or sell him any food. The only ones who are kind to him -- yeah, you saw this coming, too -- are Dr. Yang and his assistant, the lovely Miss Orchid (Jean Wang), who are both amused and troubled by his determination to bring down Iron Monkey.
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More plot complications, both tragic and farcical, occur: As Hong Kong kick-fests go, Iron Monkey has a pretty tight script, co-written (with Elsa Tang and Lau Tai-Muk) by the film's producer, Tsui Hark, who had a hand in at least half of the best films to emerge from Hong Kong during the period. But plot is never central in these films; the real action is the action, and it's hard to imagine a greater bunch of fight sequences than those collected in Iron Monkey -- from the amazing comical choreography of young Wong Fei-Hong fending off attackers with his father's umbrella to the simply extraordinary ten-minute action finale, the last half of which involves the elder Wong, Dr. Yang and the archvillain (Yan Yee-Kwan) doing unbelievable acrobatics. Atop a bunch of narrow wooden poles. That are on fire.
For those dyed-in-the-wool Hong Kong buffs who have already seen Iron Monkey on video, here's what the folks at Miramax have done for the reissue: They've struck a really lovely new print with more clearly translated subtitles than in earlier incarnations. They've added a few drawings at the film's start, accompanied by brief titles explaining the period and the setup -- perfectly reasonable for American audiences and not intrusive. (Similar explanatory titles at the end feel a bit less justified.)
The total running time is almost identical to that of the original, so it's obvious that a few trims have been made -- but they're so minimal, I was able to spot only one: A minute or so has been snipped in and around Miss Orchid's flashback to her life as a prostitute. The sound has been effectively remixed -- the original Cantonese looping is as out of synch as ever -- and Richard Yuen's excellent score has unnecessarily been replaced by a new score, which is at least idiomatic and unobtrusive.
Most important: There is no inept English dubbing, which has done more to damage the cause of Hong Kong action cinema in America than all other factors put together. Even decent dubbing is unnecessary and causes problems. If Crouching Tiger's huge success proved anything, it's that people will flock to see good films, subtitled or not. It's obvious that Iron Monkey, while lacking the grand romance of Ang Lee's megahit, is one of the key works that convinced Lee to hire Yuen for the action sequences in Crouching Tiger. And no one who thrilled to the sight of Michelle Yeoh skipping across rooftops and running up walls in pursuit of Zhang Ziyi is likely to be disappointed by what they see here.