In the shadow of night, in the silence before dawn, what man fights to give hope to the poor in a desperate and unjust land? They call him Iron Monkey -- unmask the legend!" So teases the trailer for the explosive Hong Kong actioner "Iron Monkey," the 1993 martial-arts cult classic that returns to the big screen this weekend to much acclaim.
"Iron Monkey" has long been a favorite of Hong Kong film fans in the States, having been released on video shortly after its debut. But for converts only recently introduced to the genre via "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the significance of its reissue is simple: The man responsible for the action of both is Yuen Wo Ping.
Both films were influenced by Chinese folklore, history and the tradition of Bejing opera -- and both are distinguished by phenomenal acrobatics. But audiences who embraced Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger," for which Wo Ping helped devise the action sequences, can see Wo Ping pull a different rabbit out of his magician's hat in "Iron Monkey," which he directed himself. Whereas "Tiger's" action was fluid and poetic, "Monkey's" is largely combative and physical; where the rhythm of the former undulates, the latter is rapid-fire. And the budget of "Monkey" pales in comparison to the expense of "Tiger."
Still, like "Tiger," "Iron Monkey" unites martial-arts technique with story and character. Inventive action scenes, a tender father-son relationship, a subtle love story and unforgettable characters provide a ravishing tableaux that reinterprets and celebrates Chinese history and culture. Two forces of ultimate good -- the noble Wong Kei-ying (Donnie Yen) and the humanitarian Iron Monkey (Yu Ruang-guang) -- unite against evil and corruption, exemplifying for the young Wong Fei-hung (Tsang Sze-man) the best of values in action. Delivering on both the hand-to-hand combat and imaginative flights of fancy, the movie satisfies hardcore action fans as well as those who want some fantasy. From amazing shadowless kicks to a firefight with the combatants balanced on poles, there are concerns with dynamics and movement that will take your breath away.
On the film's official website, www.iron-monkey.com, Wo Ping explains that American audiences will see this film in a newly restored print, with English subtitles that better convey the original dialogue and music that expresses the many moods of the film. Veteran fans may miss the unintentional humor of less-than-perfect translation, but the newer subs provide more clarity and subtle nuances. And the cleaned-up print offers more beautiful images.
The ranks of the so-called Hong Kong border-crossers have been growing by leaps and bounds -- including Chow Yun-Fat, John Woo and Jackie Chan -- as Hong Kong imports splash across screens and their action style crops up in more Hollywood movies. No wonder officials at Miramax feel the moment to re-release Wo Ping's 1993 effort is now, since more people are open to the martial-arts genre and ready to be excited by it.
Miramax will open "Monkey" in 1,500 U.S. theaters on Friday, Oct. 12. The trend continues with a followup release of Tsui Hark's martial-arts fantasy "The Legend of Zu," a remake of his 1983 "Zu Warriors From the Magic Mountain," one of the first Hong Kong movies to exploit Hollywood special effects. In general, Miramax and others have been buying up Hong Kong film libraries in recent years, timing theatrical or DVD and video-format releases for big profits.
What makes "Iron Monkey" so well loved among its fans, and why should it appeal to mainstream U.S. audiences? First of all, it weds martial-arts skill and moral virtue, making this martial-arts myth-making at its best.
Also, for those interested in history, "Iron Monkey" introduces the young Wong Fei-hung as a leading character. Fei-hung was a real-life folk hero who lived from 1847 to 1924. He was a martial-arts master of Hung Gar-style kung fu and a practictioner of traditional herbal medicine, as well as a Chinese nationalist and defender of Confucian values.
Furthermore, Fei-hung reigns as the most enduring figure in Hong Kong cinematic history: It was Tsui Hark's 1992 "Once Upon a Time in China" that revived Fei-hung as a character and introduced Jet Li to many non-Chinese audiences. That qualifies "Iron Monkey" as a prequel to Tsui's effort, because it provides the back story for what Fei-hung would become. And, unlike the surreal fighting of "Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey's" fights are more solid, with less wirework.
Yen plays Wong Kei-ying, father of the young Wong Fei-hung (here played by a girl), and it is the father's and Iron Monkey's lessons that instruct the child into the ways of men. Yen, who began working with Wo Ping in the early '80s, remembers the tight budgets and gruelling schedules of Hong Kong filmmaking: "We had a saying: You go into the studio vertical and you come out horizontal."
Having trained in many martial-arts styles, including with the Chinese Wushu Team to which Jet Li belonged in Beijing, Yen -- like his spiritual mentor Bruce Lee -- is a master of all and none. Yen says he interpreted the Hung Gar kung fu style for "Iron Monkey" -- not to take away from true Hung Gar practitioners, but to capture the flavor and make "the action look good onscreen." He also emphasizes that not all talented martial artists make great martial-arts actors, explaining that an actor must learn about "movement to the camera and angle to the action."
Chinese born and Boston bred, Yen has since crossed over to Hollywood, as actor and action choreographer, appearing in "Highlander Endgame" and the forthcoming "Blade 2," with Wesley Snipes.
Yen observes that Hong Kong filmmakers have been modifying and refining their action craft for many years. He links the pace of life in Hong Kong itself to the rhythm and speed of the films' action. "Even a simple movement, say, shooting a gun or jumping and throwing a kick -- filmmakers are attentive to every nuance," he says. "They are technically precise with even the simplest moves."
Nowhere is that more evident than in "Iron Monkey's" already-famous action sequences. Some include Yen's shadowless kicks, which incorporated a bit of undercranking for the camera to speed up his action, while others were performed slowly so the movements appear to be at normal speed. Then there's the umbrella-as-weapon fight, choreographed to have a 3-D effect. Plus the climactic pole fight over a raging inferno, a hellish vision.
Most difficult for that scene, Yen explains, was "keeping your balance with a partner on the pole, anticipating each shift of body weight." Despite wearing body harnesses connected to lightweight (and almost invisible) wires run through pulleys and controlled by hand by several men, the performers found the task tricky. But the results paid off tremendously.
"It's amazing," Yen says. "All these people, Jackie and Sammo [Hung, known to U.S. audiences of CBS's "Martial Law"] and Master Yuen, started off in Beijing Opera and have now influenced all of filmmaking. Ten years ago Hong Kong films were a joke to the U.S. movie industry. Now all of a sudden we are the main influence on how action is done."
Lisa Stokes, a Seminole Community College instructor, is co-author with Michael Hoover of the Hong Kong cinema overview City on Fire (Verso Press).