With “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” phenomena, American studios have begun raiding the vaults of Hong Kong cinema, ironically years after its last golden age.
The first movie has sparked interest in choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping’s other films, hence the re-release of his 1993 directorial turn, “Iron Monkey.” An 1858 flood has driven peasants into the city of Chekiang, unfortunately staffed with corrupt officials and renegade Shaolin monks. A “masked avenger” named Iron Monkey — Robin Hood for you comparative literature types — robs from the rich to give to the poor. With a little wirework (shhh, it’s movie magic), he enters frays against dozens and has a penchant for leaving notes with cutesy monkey drawings.
A gift that “Crouching Tiger” has given to the “Iron Monkey” (besides removing the stigma of animal titles) is its blessing of subtitles. In addition to adding different music and an introduction, the film boasts new translations in Reader’s Digest large-size print. The otherwise simple period action story distinguished by sophisticated martial arts has been re-released mercifully dub-free — in other words, without the low-rent English-language squawking.
“Iron Monkey” is no epic, but the standard Hong Kong action is elevated by good actors and incredible, dynamic martial arts. The avenger, we quickly find out, happens to be the benevolent Dr. Wang (Yu Rong Guang), who finds the time to run a clinic, save and train a prostitute in kung fu (his assistant Miss Orchid, played by Jean Wang), play instruments and cook up some mean fried noodles. His inadvertent nemesis is the fabled Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen), doctor, martial artist and another all-around Ming Dynasty kind of guy (or Renaissance man for you comparative history types) living in the Ch’ing period. He is visiting from his hometown Fu-Shan with his young son, Wong Fei-Hung (actually played by an amazing young girl, Sze-Man Tsang).
This calls for a cinematic and historical aside: Legend Wong Kei-Ying has had his share of theatrical homage, but his son Wong Fei-Hung (1847-1924) has reached the mythic status of folk hero, thanks in some part to more than 200 Hong Kong films, including Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time” series with Jet Li.
In “Iron Monkey,” the Wongs get swept up in a crackdown to find the elusive Monkey, who has so terrorized the cowardly governor that he hides under silk blankets with his nine wives. The broad comedy actually works for the most part, like the sweep that nets everyone from Peking Opera performers dressed as the Monkey King to musicians and their performing monkeys. Wong is forced to be a bounty hunter while his son is held captive.
The townspeople quickly ostracize him, but Wong is kindly treated to a homecooked meal by none other than Dr. Wang and Miss Orchid. The doctor also takes the young boy — diagnosed with the plague — from the governor’s dungeon to his clinic. Naturally, the good guys can’t fight one another indefinitely, so tossed in is the visiting Royal Minister, who turns out to be Shaolin monk traitor Hin-Hung (Yen Kee Kwan).
The action is flabbergasting: Too bad director Ping puts some fight scenes on fast-forward, because Yen and Yu already have quick, gorgeous power and enchanting physical subtlety. Aside from the occasional sickening bone crunch, mass beatings and an eye being put out, “The Iron Monkey” verges on being a family film. Slapstick and broad humor are rampant, like the jokes thrown at a formidable, scarred henchwoman whose specialty is the Virgin Sword technique. Think of it as broad Shakespearean farce, with its easy treatment of a serious underlying story line (a threatened young boy, an abused citizenry).
The translations, while never literal, seem to go an extra step to accommodate Western sensibilities. At one point, Wong tells his son to go back to Fu-Shan without him. The subtitles say “I promise to be back,” but what he actually says is “You must be strong alone.” Wong is always pushing his son to manhood, and given their propensity for defending the weak, death is a constant. Maybe the translators thought these kinds of messages aren’t terribly touch-feely for Western appetites; maybe not. However you read it, the formula for heroism comes out the same in the end.