Wednesday, September 16, 2009

“A real man sheds his blood before he sheds his tears.”

So, fun fact, after seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in theaters, the next martial arts movie I saw was 1993’s Siu nin Wong Fei Hung ji: Tit Ma Lau (hereafter referred to as Iron Monkey) as one of my early experiences in college and it kind of got the ball really rolling for me as far as kung fu cinema goes. You may have heard of it when it got a 2001 re-release with a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” stamped onto it.

China in the mid 1800s is plagued with disasters (flooding, refugee migration, corrupt officials and, uh, plague itself). In a southern town, a corrupt governor is milking his subjects dry, something which a local Robin Hood type of character who dresses in black and covers the lower half of his face does not take kindly too. Angered by the impudence, the governor blackmails a traveling monk/herbalist into hunting down the criminal while imprisoning his son. The monk meets a kind doctor who helps him out, and the stakes get raised when an imperial minister arrives to put a stop to the Iron Monkey’s actions. Hilarity and ADVENTURE! follow for the next 85-90 minutes.

Dr. Yang: Rongguang Yu plays the town’s kind, benevolent doctor who gives the poor peasants free subscriptions and the rich folks expensive subscriptions. Obviously he’s the Iron Monkey, but the mystery of the thief’s identity isn’t the point. He knows a lot about medicine and Shaolin kung fu, and is a pretty likable guy. As Iron Monkey, he’s really badass, throwing money at the poor folks with notes attached and making sure that nobody tries to steal any of it away.

Miss Orchid: Jean Wang plays Dr. Yang’s assistant/nurse and an accomplished martial artists as well. She’s in on the Iron Monkey’s activities.

Wong Kei-Ying: Martial arts superstar Donnie Yen plays the traveling monk/doctor, famous martial artist kind of guy who’s got his young son with him. During an altercation where he proceeds to beat the asses of several thugs, he gets arrested on suspicion of being the Iron Monkey. Blackmailed into tracking the thief down, he finds out that the common people won’t sell anything to him because of his publicly stated mission. He comes across Dr. Yang and they become buddies, but of course things get complicated when a new minister comes into town.

Wong Fei-Hung: Kei-Ying’s son, played by (female) Sze-Man Tsang. The character is a little kid, but training in martial arts and in herbal properties and a habit of calling out the names of his attacks. Normally, kids in these movies are really annoying, but here, it’s a little badass in training, who would grow up to become one of China’s great 19th -20th Century folk heroes (which doesn‘t mean a lot in the West, but over there the character is very well-liked). The little kid can kick some serious ass.

Chief Fox: Shun-Yee Yuen is the bumbling, corrupt but likable Chief/Master of security. He’s crooked enough to take bribes from local criminals, but draws the line at said crooks trying to force a woman into prostitution or torturing a kid. He gets his butt whupped quite a lot in the film, being a whipping boy for both the bad guy and the Iron Monkey, but he’s sympathetic, likable and actually smarter than he lets on.

The Governor: A corrupt, hedonistic official who’s bribed his way into office and leeches off the people to support the luxurious lifestyle of his nine wives. A comedic villain who nonetheless gets some actual tyranny done before being replaced by the serious villain.

The Minister: The REAL villain of the movie. He’s a big, bearded Shaolin practitioner who’s a disgrace to the tenets of monasticism. Lecherous and violent, he’s got a squad of Shaolin monks who follow him in deed and creed, as well as two minibosses in the shape of a scarred swordsman and an ugly nun with a major facial blemish. He’s serious business and shit gets real when he finally shows up.

Woo-ping Yuen is a major name in the action choreography world, having directed the fight scenes of countless kung fu movies, as well as The Matrix and Kill Bill films. As the overall director of the film, he’s also very good, but the movie never leaves behind his area of expertise. The fight scenes in this film are both awesome (at all times) and hilarious (when need be). The climactic fight is the ultimate set piece of the film, featuring three characters fighting it out on narrow wooden posts above a courtyard that is ON FIRE.

The writing team was Tai-Muk Lau, Cheung Tan, Pik-yin Tang and Hark Tsui. Now, I don’t know any of the Chinese dialects, and I’m always a little leery of subtitle quality, so I can’t really comment on dialog. However, the characterizations are clearly defined (which works in a story like this) and the pacing is excellent, all while being its own movie full of ADVENTURE! and not simply a “Chinese Robin Hood” film.

The score by Richard Yuen is entirely appropriate for the action on screen, but it does its job without superseding the movie. I can’t remember any particular moment that really stood out.

Iron Monkey is a really fun film. I am somewhat aware that the version that has reached American shores is allegedly bastardized, but if the version I watched has been chopped up, I didn’t notice anything really amiss. It’s a light, enjoyable and primarily fun kung fu movie that, while it doesn’t reach say an artistic level that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon does, is still highly entertaining. It was my “gateway drug” into Kung Fu movies, and I can actively recommend it to others.

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