The official release date of the film, Siu Nin Wong Fei Hung Chi: Tit Ma Lau, was in the year 1993, but the U.S. release date was in 2001, presented by Quentin Tarantino with the translated title:
I watched this film in theaters (subtitled) around the time when I was just beginning my teen years. I went in with a friend, and I was expecting something simple, a martial arts flick where one person or group faces off against another person or group. One side would be good, one side would be evil, and I would be content.
I was in for a shock, however.
Iron Monkey, in my own words, is about the human spirit. This almost surreal-like film, with its cartoon-like portrayal of the characters, actually delivers something heavy in the human heart.
What I’m about to discuss–in detail–are the events that take place in the film, analyzing it from my own perspective, and giving my thoughts as to how it impacted me as a writer, and why it belongs here in my Inspiration Highlights. The nature of this analysis will contain spoilers, so decide for yourself if you wish to continue or not. I do hope in any case that you enjoy the analysis, and that by the end, you either gain a new desire to view the film, or if you’ve already viewed it, perhaps a new/renewed sense of enjoyment/appreciation towards it.
As the title suggests, this film by Woo-ping Yuen is a tale about the Iron Monkey, a Robin Hood type character who uses an almost supernatural skill in the martial arts in order to steal from corrupt officials and give those riches to the needy and the poor. This is portrayed perfectly from the very beginning of the film in a triad, which opens first with a visual & text setting, followed by an action sequence between the Iron Monkey himself and the governor’s monks, followed by a heartfelt introduction to the Iron Monkey’s true persona, which is Dr. Yang, played wonderfully by Rongguang Yu.
So right off the bat, from those three scenes, we absolutely understand who this guy is. He’s someone we can root for, someone who not only uses his amazing martial arts for what many people would consider a good cause, but he’s also a doctor, an intelligent, kindly man who is willing to put his reputation on the line in order to help those who are unable to afford it. He is the lead protagonist, and the hero–the one who is directly taking action in order to help those in poverty.
So that’s it, right? Good guy versus the corrupt governor, and that’s it. That’s what I expected when I first viewed the film. I… was… so…
WRONG. That’s just the opening.
The next few segments reveal a few more characters, a couple of them protagonists with their own point of view (POV) scenes, and this amplifies the complexity of the film without flying off the spectrum between good and evil.
First is General/Chief Fox, played by Shun-Yee Yuen.
Notice how small Chief Fox is there on the left. The man he’s confronting is clearly larger in size, which I think is an excellent portrayal of a small man who isn’t afraid to stand up to injustice, regardless of physical stature. Now having that said, we’re also given scenes which display Fox’s stance towards the Iron Monkey. It’s almost as if he understands the Iron Monkey’s cause, but because of his position as police Chief and his obligations towards protecting the governor (and his assets), Fox feels torn on what to do pragmatically. His place is gray, and that’s important to remember from here on out.
The next two characters enter the plot:
Wong Kei-Ying and his son, Wong Fei-Hong (played by Donnie Yen and Sze-Man Tsang, respectively):
These two characters play a vital role in the film, bringing with them a very unique sense of character. Wong Fei-Hong (Wong Fei-Hung, according to other sources), is actually a common folk-hero in Hong Kong who was known to be a an expert in the field of martial artist, adept as a physician, and an altogether well-known character displayed in many other fictional stories. It’s almost as if this film follows him as a prequel adventure to his adult character in other media. In this film, he’s definitely considered a young martial artist/physician who is still provided tutelage under his father. Needless to say, they both know how to defend themselves well in this film, just one of many reasons I would recommend checking it out for yourself if you have not already.
Wonderful Story Complications: The plot goes deeper as we see these two characters enter the same location where the Iron Monkey prevails. They get caught up in a street-fight within the first five minutes of reaching the city, and because they showed off their martial arts skills, the men under Chief Fox arrest them, considering them to be potential allies with the Iron Monkey, going so far as to accusing Wong Kei-Ying of being the Iron Monkey himself.
While arrested, Wong Kei-Ying pleads with the governor to let him free, to prove his innocence and catch the Iron Monkey. The governor agrees, holding his son as a hostage until the Iron Monkey is brought to justice.
…And this is my favorite plot point of this film. In any tale told, I tend to become more involved when the two opposing forces aren’t simply good and evil, or in this case, Robin Hood versus the corrupted officials. At this point in the film, it becomes two fantastic martial artists versus each other, one to help those in poverty, and the other to free his son. They’re two people we can root for, facing off with one another.
In a beautiful spin on the writing, as Wong Kei-Ying attempts to seek and kill the Iron Monkey, he finds it difficult even to find food, for nobody in the city is willing to accept his money; he is, after all, the one guy who’s out to vanquish their champion, the Iron Monkey. So who does he run into?
Miss Orchid, Doctor Yang’s assistant (played by Jean Wang).
In my opinion, this adds such an enormous layer to the beauty of this film. Through a montage of what literally looks like kung-fu cooking, music, and table-talk, we see that Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid are treating Wong Kei-Ying with the greatest of hospitality. Wong Kei-Ying, though tasked with murdering and bringing the Iron Monkey’s head back to the governor, knows nothing of Dr. Yang’s dual identity, though Yang is certainly aware of Wong Kei-Ying’s forced task, issued by the governor. Seeing Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid care and cater to this man whose very goal is to see the Iron Monkey dead inspired me on so many levels as a young teenager, and the notion of catering to your enemies still impacts me today.
Also, this is the scene in the film that separates the good from the evil, in my opinion. If we take this film as a fairy-tale, then the first half is definitely the depiction of the knights, the damsels in distress, the failing ruler… even the governor has been portrayed as someone who’s only following orders and trying to maintain his status as governor, reaching for the mountaintop of riches, away from the fears of being too poor to eat. He’s stressed, and fearful, and in that sense, he’s human, even in his corrupted state of being.
Firstly, being scolded by one of his nine wives doesn’t automatically make the governor someone we’d consider morally good–nor does this in any way mean that his wives are to blame for his corrupt behavior–but compared to the characters introduced in the second half of the film, even the governor is somebody we can at least understand and perhaps empathize with, even if we don’t necessarily want to. In the fairy-tale, he’s the ruler who’s simply not very good at ruling, and to me, the film lets us know on a few occasions that he understands his folly. Now, what do most fairy-tales include besides the morally good and ambiguous?
Evil people, coming in to do evil things.
Okay, so the second half of this film becomes littered with a small army with bad to worse characters… not in a way that says, “Wow, they ruined the movie!” but in a way that says, “Did the dude just use one of the governor’s wives… as a shield?” More on that later.
Just when we think the film is solidly about a corrupt governor who hires a good man to take down the hero (which is a good-enough plot that has been brilliantly performed by the actors in this movie), suddenly enters people who do things like this:
Summing up those four images is like summing up the physical mass that is blasphemy. Not only do they fake a funeral, falsely praying for what turns out to be fake dressings, but they did it all to lure in the Iron Monkey, just to cut him into bits while taking his charitable money.
I think we can agree that that’s evil behavior… but let’s take a look at who they work for:
The Royal Minister (also known here as, THIS GUY):
The guy not only breaks through a bunch of wall after his pupils were defeated, but he delivers the super-poisoned-evil version of Buddha’s Palm to our hero… all in one leap!
He also steals wives…
And then uses those wives as a shield…
Yeah. The Royal Minister clearly does not care about foolish mortals, who are apparently in his path only to amuse and serve him. He spits cherries from his mouth fast enough to literally pierce a guy like a bullet, he can almost fly, has huge devil-sleeves that can be used for anything from remodeling to slowly suffocating his victims like an arachnid, and a great big beard he uses to stroke while speaking maliciously. The guy, in this film, represents polar evil, or the dragon in the fairy-tale, the beast that came from the far, opposite side of the spectrum in order to burn the land.
In a brilliant stroke of writing brings all the heroes together, the Iron Monkey, Wong Kei-Ying, Wong Fei-Hong, and Miss Orchid… all of whom perform some serious martial arts against the Royal Minister and his band of bullies. It’s fantastic, and I love it now just as much as I did years ago.
I won’t go into the conclusion of the tale, so as to keep the appetite whet.
Why Iron Monkey belongs here in my inspirations:
As a tale, this film does such a wonderful job at bringing the viewer into the era and locale of the Iron Monkey. The characters all have their own backgrounds, their own moral compasses, and we get to see how many of them interact with each other, both peacefully and violently. To me, it’s a fairy-tale between polar opposites, with a myriad of characters in between the two extremes, those gray in color.
Personally, one of my favorite scenes (away from all the great martial arts) is when Dr. Yang and Miss Orchid cater to Wong Kei-Ying. During that portion of the story, we are given subtle details that really expand the setting and history, solidifying what could have easily been just another fight-fest film. Though the entire film has hidden gems, this is the scene that really struck me as inspirational, the idea that opposing sides don’t necessarily have to retain a hatred or even a dislike towards each other. It is simply the opposition by natural law and human circumstance. We’ve seen it before and I could give many great examples of tales that depict this (perhaps in my future analyses), but when I first saw this film at the turn of the new century, I really didn’t come across many films in general that portrayed such a fantastic array of moral development.
It’s a wonderful film, and I would suggest you not only view it on your own, but watch it with your friends, your family, and, if you believe they’re mature enough, even your kids (if applicable).
I hope you enjoyed this first piece from my analyzed works (film, music, literature, etc.), and I plan on writing more in the future. Though I haven’t decided yet which inspiration I’ll work on next, I do have a few in mind. I’ll keep them a surprise. Anyhow, if you haven’t checked out this film, I’d recommend viewing it for yourself to see if you love it, hate it, or take something new from it. Most importantly, have a wonderful day.
You can follow me on Twitter @Keatongwolfe
And you can find bits of my own project (both transcripts and readings) at The Granatium.
Until next time…