[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly 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.]
Much as I did after writing my Jackie Chan list by then covering his first breakout role, for Sammo Hung month, I’d like to talk about his directorial debut to cap things off. The Iron-Fisted Monk is often overlooked in the pantheon of Hung’s work for a multitude of reasons. It’s honestly quite a solid debut for Hung as a director, but that is within the context of where Hung was in 1977. If you compare this to his later work (specifically films such as The Prodigal Son, Eastern Condors, and Millionaire’s Express), you’ll see how quickly his skills improved. There’s also some really shocking violence here that would thankfully get dialed down as Hung progressed.
The basic plot of The Iron-Fisted Monk isn’t anything to write home about. Being a directorial debut, Hung didn’t do any of the writing. Being a longtime collaborator of Huang Feng’s -the two worked together on numerous Angela Mao films and The Shaolin Plot-, Hung asked Feng if he could help him break out into directing by contributing a script. According to Frank Djeng’s commentary on the Eureka Blu-Ray release, Feng asked Hung what interested him and his mind immediately went to the mythical “Ten Tigers of Canton.” This led to a story about Lam Sai Wing, otherwise known as Butcher Wing.
That’s honestly more just set dressing to establish the tone of things, however. The Iron-Fisted Monk doesn’t put much stock in character development and has seemingly little to do with the actual life of Lam Sai Wing (which Hung would coincidentally play again in The Magnificent Butcher). Instead, the movie uses Wing’s skills as a springboard for a story of revenge against the Manchurians. It’s typical Kung Fu plotting, which is understandable for a first-time director.
Details like that went over my head completely when I originally saw this film almost 20 years ago. Having been turned onto Kung Fu by my high school friends, I started snatching up whatever DVDs I could and was drawn to this film due to Hung’s skills. What I vividly remember is my friend telling me, “This movie has a really graphic rape scene in it.” Not sure if he was joking, I bought the DVD and was surprised to see one of the most horrific scenes I had ever witnessed at that point in my life.
Years later, that sequence is still hard to watch. Referring back to Eureka’s commentary track, Djeng notes that the sequence is likely meant to represent how the Manchurian people raped China of its identity, but it feels very odd to include something so personal and violent in what is considered the first true Kung Fu comedy. Whatever postulating I did with The Way of the Dragon about Bruce Lee experimenting with comedy, Sammo Hung was the one to introduce the concept on a fuller scale with this film.
That’s likely the first thing you’ll notice after the introductory fight scene. The Iron-Fisted Monk is pretty light in tone during the first act. Hung’s character is a goofball who wants to rush his training and there is an extended sequence at a brothel where a monk acts ashamed of being in a house of sin. By 2023 standards, this is tame as hell, but it’s also cliched. I guess every idea has to start somewhere and Hung was the catalyst for more experimentation in Kung Fu.
Another notable aspect of The Iron-Fisted Monk is that it marked Golden Harvest’s first foray into Cantonese language films. Again, this is all totally new information to me thanks to Frank Djeng’s commentary, but a lot of films from Hong Kong were dubbed into Mandarin because of the number of ex-pats moving into the territory. People from Northern China were either fleeing from the Chinese Communist Revolution or looking to start life in a freer nation, so movie studios catered to them by dubbing films in Mandarin. The recent surge of Cantopop artists showed that people were hungry for Cantonese language material, so Golden Harvest took a risk with this film.
All of that doesn’t mean The Iron-Fisted Monk is an all-time classic that is impeccable, but it details why the film is important for sociopolitical reasons. In terms of filmmaking, what truly sets this film apart from other 1970s affairs is the action choreography. Pretty much all of the staples of Hung’s later films are present here, even if it is in a rougher form. There is more of a focus on Peking Opera acrobatics, lots of weapons-focused battles, and some brutal hand-to-hand combat filmed sometimes in a guerilla style.
In particular, the scene at the brothel is a marvel to behold. It’s strange to realize this, but a lot of choreography beforehand didn’t feature one fighter taking on multiple opponents. There is that famous scene from Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Chinese Boxer where he contends with an entire dojo of students and Bruce Lee would even do something similar in Fist of Fury, but that was still a single enemy attacking at a time. The people in the background were either standing there making grimacing faces or moving around in a big circle. Hung changed that by fighting two people at once.
The zenith of modern action choreography is the reason why you watch The Iron-Fisted Monk nowadays. While it is certainly entertaining, the rest of the movie is less impressive. As I said, there is already a graphic rape scene to contend with, but the plot is also very melodramatic and often unfocused. The moment-to-moment happenings will go from the aforementioned brothel fight to some nonsense with the Manchurians trying to trick a dye factory to then another rape scene. In a lot of ways, the Manchurians are written almost like caricatures just so you have a very clean villain.
In fact, a lot of archetypes for Kung Fu comedy characters are present here. Dean Shek, probably most famous for his parts in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, plays an effeminate and ineffective patsy character here. Fung Hak-On, known for being the villain, is the aforementioned rapist character. Wu Ma, a legendary comedy character, shows up as a bit player -something that would become a running gag in Hung’s films-. There is even an early appearance by Eric Tsang, who would later collaborate with Hung on the Lucky Stars films (though his current reputation is not good).
So I have a lot of respect for what The Iron-Fisted Monk did for Sammo Hung’s career. When it gets going after the ugly rape bit, the movie is even pretty damn good. It has solid pacing despite the connective tissue between sequences not always making sense. It just doesn’t leave much of an impression after seeing Hung’s better work.
A lot of the elements in this film are cliched and Hung would later completely subvert them time and time again, so it’s bizarre to see such a banal film from him. By that same measure, Hung would later direct some really bad films. I can complain all I want about how derivative this film is, but it beats trash such as Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Stars, Pantyhose Hero, and Mr. Nice Guy. Nobody is perfect.
With all of that said, I’d still recommend fans of Sammo Hung’s work to eventually watch The Iron-Fisted Monk. You might be surprised by how adept Hung was right from the jump. It’s also amazing how in just one year, Hung would direct Warriors Two and redefine action cinema yet again. That seemed to be a skill of his, especially with competition coming from Shaw Brothers and the legendary Lau Kar Leung.
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