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Sudden impact
Donnie Yen stars and master choreographer Yuen Woo-ping directs IRON MONKEY [SIN NIN WONG FEI HUNG CHI: TIT MA LAU], a 1993 Wu Xia favourite that was not hit on its release but is now regarded as a genre classic. Slarek revisits a higely enjoyable martial arts treat, which has been given an HD makeover on Eureka's new Blu-ray.
 

Back when Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon exploded into western cinemas at the dawn of the new millennium, audiences and critics were understandably excited by the film's often dazzling action choreography and what they saw as a new take on the martial arts movie. For genre fans, however, this was not such new ground. The Wu Xia sub-genre, a mixture of kung-fu, swordplay, acrobatics and fantasy, has its roots in Chinese literature and first found cinematic form in the late 1960s, notably with King Hu's 1969 A Touch of Zen. For a sizeable portion of the audience that flocked to Crouching Tiger, however, this was their first exposure to this singular take on genre conventions (hence the sometimes-overheard comment in cinemas "How come they can run up the walls?"). As for the choreography – well, from this point on simply having the name Yuen Woo-ping attached to your film was seen as a badge of action prestige. But once again, Yuen had been choreographing martial arts sequences since 1971, acting in them since 1965, and directing them since 1978. For martial arts movie devotees, the biggest surprise delivered by Crouching Tiger was that it managed to connect so effectively with a more mainstream international audience where its predecessors had remained in the world of the cult.

Made seven years before the genre moved into the mainstream, Iron Monkey [Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau] can retrospectively be seen as a work that marks a midway point between the kung-fu films of the 70s and 80s and the elaborately shot and styled Wu Xia works that were soon to follow. The balletic wire-work, gravity-defying leaps and quicker-than-the-eye fight choreography were all pointers of things to come, but the obviously post-dubbed dialogue and exaggerated sound effects are rooted firmly in the heyday of the Shaw brothers and Raymond Chow, while the comedic interludes acknowledge the influence and success of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and their contemporaries.

Dr. Yang converses with his fellows townspeople

The plot and characters are certainly a touch more sophisticated than the genre standard of pitting a talented innocent against an unspeakably evil villain. In a 19th century Chinese town, the kindly and skilled physician Dr. Yang has a secret identity, that of Iron Monkey, a masked figure blessed with considerable fighting skills and who robs from the corrupt rich to redistribute their wealth to the needy. Flustered officials are in the process of rounding up anyone they think might be this latter-day Robin Hood, when into town strolls legendary fighter Wong Kei-ying and his young son Wong Fei-hung*. After quickly landing themselves in conflict with a number of the locals, both are arrested and Kei-ying is blackmailed by the authorities into hunting down Iron Monkey. Completely unaware of his secret identity, Wong promptly makes friends with Dr. Yang, who then rescues Fei-hung from jail and treats his illness, which only serves to strengthen the bond between the two men. They soon find common ground in the shape of super-skilled bad guy and fallen Shaolin Monk Hiu Hing, whose King Kong Fist injures Yang and presents a serious challenge for Kei-ying. Just as well, then, that Fei-hung and Yang's pretty assistant (and girlfriend) Miss Orchid are also formidable fighters...

Although constructed in part through the editing and wire work (and occasionally some very evident speeded-up motion), the action sequences – which, let's face it, are martial arts films' raison d'être – are very impressively and often inventively choreographed and staged, with a variety of objects – from poles and pots to clothing and umbrellas – employed as weapons to be juggled, spun, thrust and hurled at opponents. All four leads get at least one show-stopping action scene, and the climactic battle, fought with the three adult protagonists balanced on top of flaming bamboo poles, has already become part of genre legend, with its wire-assisted leaps and questionable physics never detracting from the sheer spectacle of the piece or the athletic abilities of the performers. Surprisingly, however, the film's most quietly memorable and imaginative sequence is not a fight scene at all, but one in which Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid collect wind-blown papers using a series of gracefully executed leaps and tumbles.

Yang and Kei-ying team up in the acrobatic finale

Tam Chi-wai and Arthur Wong's colourful cinematography and Ringo Cheung's production design provide a rich setting for the action to play out in, and the martial arts skills of stars Rongguang Yu (as Yang/Iron Monkey) and Donnie Yen (as Kei-ying) are handsomely showcased, though it remains a mystery why young Tsang Sze-Man never appeared in another film after her (yep, she's a girl) impressive turn here as Fei-hung – if ever there looked to be a future martial arts star in the making, it's right here. But ultimately, it's Yuen Woo-ping's show, with his choreographic skills bringing a visual dynamism to almost every scene, while his direction keeps things moving at a pace that rarely allows the audience time to wonder about the daffier aspects of the plot.

While martial arts cinema was subsequently re-grounded in its wire-free roots by the likes of Ong-Bak, The Raid and even District 13Iron Monkey remains a thoroughly engaging work that fully justifies its position as a genre leading light. It may lack the epic spectacle of Crouching Tiger and sheer visual dazzle of Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, but as unpretentious and sometimes spectacular fun, it still delivers the goods.

sound and vision

The SD anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer on the previous Hong Kong Legends DVD was a largely impressive one, but the 1080p HD upgrade on this new Eureka Blu-ray really does leave it standing. The sharpness and level of detail are both terrific, the colour is delicious and the contrast perfectly balanced, with solid black levels but clear rendition of shadow detail even in night scenes, except when areas of the picture are meant to be cast into darkness. The film really does look lovely here, and there's not a trace of dust or damage to contend with.

Kei-ying and Fei-hung

There is a total of five (count 'em) soundtracks on offer here: Cantonese Linear PCM 1.0 mono; a Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround remix; Mandarin Linear PCM 2.0 mono; English Linear PCM 1.0 mono and an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround remix. Phew. Far and away the best of these is the Cantonese DTS surround mix, which is bright and clear, boasts excellent bass response, and has far more distinct reproduction of background location sounds than the other four tracks. It also makes fine use of the directional and surround speakers for sound effects and location atmospherics. The Cantonese mono track is truer to how the film originally played if you're a purist for these things, but the dialogue sounds a lot rougher here, and the location sound is pushed so far back it sometimes only just registers. This is also true of the Mandarin track, although the dialogue reproduction is more robust than on the Cantonese mono track. The English dub is nowhere near as bad as many you'll find on earlier genre films, but even on the 5.1 remix the dialogue is a little flat and the effects and location sound are nowhere near as lively as on the Cantonese surround track.

Optional English subtitles are available for all of the soundtracks if you so desire.

extra features

Interview with Donnie Yen (19:36)
Yen looks back at his role in Iron Monkey and his interpretation of a character that already had something of a history in the genre. The interview is conducted in English with the effortlessly cool Yen wearing sunglasses throughout, and includes footage of a promotional photoshoot, during which Yen waxes lyrical about the influence of martial arts movies on American rap music.

Fei-hung turns an umbrella into a weapon

Interview with Producer Tsui Hark (24:36)
Genre legend Hark discusses the genesis and production of the Once Upon a Time in China series – the first three of which he directed – plus the development of the central character of Wong Fei Hung and his work with master fight choreographer and Iron Monkey director Yuen Woo-ping. He also talks about Iron Monkey's initial box office failure (Yen also touches briefly on this) and how the passing of time saw its reputation rise. Hark speaks in clear English and is a consistently fascinating talker.

Interview with Yu Rong-Kwong (26:24)
Leading man Yu Rong-kwong looks back at his stage and film career, from his time with the Peking Opera to his later roles in martial arts cinema, for which he had to learn the required fighting skills. He stresses the importance of Peking Opera training and effectively deconstructs the practicality of modern cinematic martial arts (the somersaults and jumps are just for show) and covers some aspects of Iron Monkey in some detail. This interview is in Chinese with English subtitles.

Interview with Li Fai (25:21)
Supporting actor Li Fai (who plays a character called Witch, which is probably the real reason this interview is titled Bewitched) talks about her martial arts training, her film career and her role in this film. This interview is in Chinese and subtitled in English.

Action explodes in Iron Monkey

Interview with Angie Tsang (19:59)
Tsang Sze-man, or Angie Tsang as she is also known and is titled on the menu screen (but not on the interview title itself) looks back at her role as the young Wong Fei-hung, the first of only two film roles in her career (the other was in the 1996 Guo chan xue ge wei long). She talks about how she landed her part in the film ("By mistake, I think") and about her work with the actors and director Yuen, as well as the experience of playing this role at such a young age. Just why she then effectively abandoned her film career remains something of a mystery, however.

Iron Fist – The Choreography of Iron Monkey (16:01)
The film's action director Yuen Cheung-yan looks back at his martial arts and movie experiences, from his time with Beijing Opera in his early-to-late teens to his work with the performers on Iron Monkey. This is in Chinese with English subtitles.

Shadow Boxing with Alex Yip (8:11)
Top Hong Kong stuntman Alex Yip demonstrates some fight choreography and stunt work against a wall of mirrors, making it virtually impossible for the crew to stay out of shot. It matters little when the moves are this cool.

Yang and Yong do battle

Li Fai and Angie Tsang at the 2003 Wu Shu Championships (9:10)
A neat inclusion that consists of footage of Li Fai and Tsang Sze-man competing at the 2003 Wu Shu Championships in Macau, glimpses of which are also included in their respective interviews. It's all set to the slightly heroic music you find on a long of Hong Kong action cinema extras.

Original Theatrical Trailer (4:43)
A long trailer by any standards, but the first minute is taken up with animated company logos. Lots of action footage here, as you'd expect.

summary

Any Blu-ray release of a classic Hong Kong martial arts title is warmly welcomed here, but if you are similarly inclined towards one of my favourite genres, you'll be buying this release for the HD picture and sound upgrade alone, as every one of the special features has been lifted from the Hong Kong Legends DVD release from 2005. If you don't have that disc, then the number and collective running time of the extras make this Blu-ray excellent value, but if you do, I'd still hang onto it for the Bey Logan and Donnie Yen commentary that is not present here.

 


* The character of Wong Fei-Hung is a legendary figure in martial arts film history, being central to the Once Upon a Time in China series, which was produced and directed by Tsui Hark. It also boasted action sequences that were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, and the lead was played by genre star Jet Li. In this respect, Iron Monkey can be seen as a prequel to those films.

Iron Monkey Blu-ray cover
Iron Monkey
Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau

Hong Kong 1993
90 mins
directed by
Yuen Woo-ping
produced by
Tsui Hark
written by
Tan Cheung
Lau Tai-muk
Tang Pik-yan
Tsui Hark
cinematography
Tam Chi-wai
Arthur Wong
editing
Chan Wai-chi
Angie Lam
Marco Mak
music
Chow Gam-wing
Johnny Njo
Wai LapWu
production design
Ringo Cheung
starring
Yu Rong-Kwong
Donnie Yen
Jean Wang
Tsang Tze-man
Yeun Shun-yee
James Wong
Yen Shi-kwan

disc details
region B
video
1.85:1
sound
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
LPCM 1.0 mono
LPCM 2.o mono
languages
Cantonese
Mandarin
English
subtitles
English
extras
Interview with Donnie Yen
Interview with Producer Tsui Hark
Interview with Yu Rong-Kwong
Interview with Li Fai
Interview with Angie Tsang
Iron Fist – The Choreography of Iron Monkey
Shadow Boxing with Alex Yip
Li Fai and Angie Tsang at the 2003 Wu Shu Championships
Original Theatrical Trailer

distributor
Eureka Entertainment
release date
11 June 2018
review posted
11 June 2018

See all of Slarek's review