In 1993, the martial arts films we were getting in the West were seemed OK to pretty good. Chuck Norris had moved to TV or was doing kid’s movies like Sidekicks.
It was Claude Van Damme‘s day in the sun, with movies like Double Impact, Universal Soldier, Hard Target, and Timecop. I’m not sure these flicks would stand up to the test of time, but I remember enjoying them back then.
But if you were paying attention, something was going on in the East and we were just seeing some trickles of it in our action movies.
But little did we know that our martial arts movies and really, our action movies overall, had fallen behind and that the real inventiveness and mad skills were playing out in Hong Kong cinema (and would soon invade our theaters).
It resembled the arc with Japan; back in the 60s, “Made in Japan” meant it was cheap junk, but by the 80s, it meant the highest quality. Hong Kong used to make “Chop Sockie” movies in the 70s with the cheapest production values. Cheesy dubbing and funky porn-soundtrack music targeted at the Blaxploitation audiences made the films a guilty pleasure at best.
But starting possibly with Jackie Chan’s Project A or definitely by the time he did Police Story, Chinese action movies were having a Renaissance. A group of young actors, directors, and fight choreographers had risen out of the ashes of the Peking Opera and cut their teeth in the hundreds of crappy movies that were pouring out of Hong Kong studios such as the Shaw Brothers and later Golden Harvest.
These young turks hit their stride in the mid 80s and produced works of stunning originality and beauty over the next ten years. This also reminds me of the wave of Film school grads who changed American filmmaking in the 70s (Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, DePalma. etc).
I first discovered this new wave of Chinese cinema when I visited my brother in California in 1989. We caught an episode of a program on PBS called The Incredibly Strange Film Show featuring the work of Jackie Chan (click on the link to check it out thanks to the amazing bounty that we call Youtube).
This gave me a ten year head start on enjoying an action sensibility which wouldn’t hit our shores in full-force until these Chinese directors started showing up in movies in the late 90s like The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II and the actors starting showing up in movies like Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon 4.
This all brings me to Iron Monkey.
Iron Monkey, directed by Yuen Woo Ping (choreographer of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is one of the most amazing martial arts films you will ever see. It was written and produced by Tsui Hark (The Blade, Once Upon a Time in China series) and stars Rongguang Yu and Donnie Yen as a Robin Hood-style bandit and the doctor forced to hunt for him.
Donnie Yen plays Wong Kei-ying, who arrives in town with his son, the soon-to-be legendary Wong Fei-hung. The authorities are struggling with Iron Monkey, who robs the rich to help the poor and who is such a great fighter no one can touch him. Wong Kei-ying is observed fighting with consummate skill that at first he is presumed to be Iron Moneky himself and later he is forced to help in the capture of the bandit.
The fighting is wire-style, which I usually don’t like, but when its done at the level that Yuen Woo Ping does it, you can’t help but be blown away. This movie was the first one to really feature the full elegance and fluidity of Yuen Woo Ping’s vision. His fighters are like whirlwinds and dynamo and explode into rooms with such balletic energy that you have to watch with your mouth hanging open.
Check it out: