[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
With only a few scant months left for Kung Fu Corner, I wanted to end this column by highlighting the films that really blew me away when I originally saw them. While you could make that claim about any of the films I’ve covered, there are a special few that truly defined what I enjoy about martial arts cinema and the aesthetics of Hong Kong action. One such film is Iron Monkey, the 1993 directed Yuen Woo Ping actioner.
Originally conceived as a prequel to the Once Upon a Time in China series after Jet Li considered leaving following the completion of that film’s sequel, Iron Monkey was first meant to solely be a young Wong Fei Hung film. Director Woo Ping even went to some Wushu schools to find an aspiring young actor who would take up the mantle. As HK film historian Gilbert Po mentions in his commentary on Shout Factory’s Blu-Ray, Woo Ping had found a suitable boy only to find out his new Wong Fei Hung was a girl.
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The only woman to ever play the part, Angie Tsang Sze-Man was cast when she was just 14 years old and her reluctance to continue past Iron Monkey likely put the kibosh on this prequel series. I cannot fault her for wanting to live a normal life, but she is a real treasure here. She expertly captures the spirit of Jet Li’s depiction of the character while also showcasing some incredible martial arts skills. It would have been interesting to see what Woo Ping and producer Tsui Hark could have done had she wished to pursue acting. This was her only credited acting role.
Why give all of this backstory? It serves as an interesting focal point for what Iron Monkey became. It’s hard to know if the story was always written with such a focus on its titular hero, but the film puts a lot of emphasis on not only the Iron Monkey himself but Wong Fei Hung’s father, Wong Kei Ying. In one of legendary actor Donnie Yen’s first major roles, Wong Kei Ying gets the spotlight over his son and we are given a glimpse of where Fei Hung developed his ideals and morals. Yen is, of course, amazing here, but he seems written almost exactly like how Jet Li portrayed Fei Hung in Once Upon a Time in China. I suppose that makes for consistency between the two films, but you wonder if this was even originally meant to be a Kei Ying tale.
That aside, you might be thinking that me waiting until the fifth paragraph to talk about the Iron Monkey means he is barely fleshed out. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Despite being jam-packed with characters, Iron Monkey’s titular protagonist is maybe the most defined character in the film. Played wonderfully by Yu Rongguang in his only leading role, there’s a real sense that this chapter of Wong Fei Hung’s life left an indelible mark on him as a person. The Iron Monkey is something of a Robin Hood figure for the downtrodden in Qing Dynasty China and he moonlights as a doctor (named Dr. Yang) during the day to keep the authorities off his back. Hiding in plain sight is usually the best method to stay undetected.
Iron Monkey is aided by his lovely assistant, Miss Orchid, played by Jean Wang. Again, she does an exceptional job portraying a combat-ready woman, but her true star quality is in her subtle facial performance. There is a romance that brews between Dr. Yang and Orchid that is told almost exclusively with their eyes. This has to do with how romance is depicted in Chinese films, but you’re never under the impression that the two are hiding from each other. They have formed a tag-team duo to take on crime and will longingly stare at each other when they get the right moment. It’s fantastic.
This is really what helps propel Iron Monkey to the stratosphere of Kung Fu films, though that maybe does its action direction a disservice. Yuen Woo Ping in the 90s loved his undercranking, which is a method of shooting film where you capture the action at a lower framerate to then play it back as sped-up movement. Iron Monkey goes incredibly hard on this technique and while it sometimes creates obviously “fake” looking sequences, it is typically used to highlight some larger-than-life spectacle. Woo Ping was not afraid to combine old-school wuxia aesthetics here and he does so to establish the power and gracefulness of the film’s characters. Even the scene where Dr. Yang and Orchid are picking up fallen papers isn’t a mundane expression of frustration, but a showcase of the exquisite martial prowess these characters embody.
It was really surprising to hear from critic Sean Tierney on the same Blu-Ray release that Iron Monkey kind of bombed upon its initial release in Hong Kong. From what I can find, it seems to be that Woo Ping delayed the film to add extra comedic segments, and that pushback hurt its chances at the box office. I haven’t even spoken about the often outrageous comedy, but we’ll keep that in the back pocket for the moment. Most of you likely have heard of this film from its limited American release back in 2001.
Off the back of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s success, Miramax commissioned a new edit of the film nearly 10 years after its initial release in an attempt to strike box office gold. This edit was even endorsed by director Quentin Tarantino as he has a burning passion for Hong Kong cinema. The aforementioned comedy segments were removed to create a more serious tone, all mentions of Wong Fei Hung were edited to a different name, and the soundtrack was completely reworked to sound more like Tan Dun’s work on Crouching Tiger. The result: a really compromised version of the story.
Truly, what helps Iron Monkey from feeling like another dime-a-dozen violent Kung Fu flick is its brief moments of levity. Not only is this a rare opportunity for Donnie Yen to act like a doofus, but Yu Rongguang and Jean Wang have an incredible dynamic with each other. The two get to put on some very obvious costumes and act all pompous and it’s a real treat. There’s also a ton of pratfalls and slapstick in typical Cantonese Opera fashion that when removed from the picture create an almost dour atmosphere.
To me, the true sin of the Miramax edit is the new soundtrack. I suppose it isn’t so bad, but the original Hong Kong soundtrack is a thing of beauty. I was so awestruck when I first watched Iron Monkey that I wasn’t sure why people weren’t proclaiming this the greatest film ever made. It turns out most of the striking imagery is paired with some generically Chinese-sounding tunes in the US. Even the version that was available on Netflix some time ago was the shoddy Miramax cut, which disappointed me to no end.
If you take the individual elements of Iron Monkey and examine them on their own, they are all solid bits of action filmmaking. They also represent where the HK industry was in the 90s when transitioning to a new generation of filmmakers. Combined together, however, those ingredients create a masterpiece of a film that can honestly act as a perfect introduction to Hong Kong movies.
While Donnie Yen would go on to become one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong and eventually reach global fame with Ip Man, it’s a shame that Yu Rongguang remained a sidekick or villain for the rest of his career. He hasn’t stopped working and was even featured in 2023’s Ride On, so he’s never faded into obscurity. It’s just a shame that not everyone from Iron Monkey would go on to become megastars. They all really should have because this movie is fantastic.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.