On Tuesday, Sept 15th, Miramax and Buena Vista will be releasing a welcome, if oddly grouped, selection of martial arts films, all making their Blu-ray disc debut. Called the “Ultimate Force of Four” set, which actually makes it sound like a poorly translated Japanese cartoon from the 80s, the set features four popular films starring Hong Kong sensations Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and even Takeshi Kitano for the sake of cultural diversity. Although some of the films share similar elements, other than being elaborately costumed period shows they have little in common save having been snatched up for American distribution by Miramax Pictures.
The oldest film of the set, 1993’s Iron Monkey, was directed and choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping several years before being set up as Hollywood’s official HK fight choreographer, giving films like The Matrix and Kill Bill films instant street cred. Slightly more historically accurate than Drunken Master II, the film nonetheless plays fast and loose with elements of the life of Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hung. The story of Iron Monkey centers on a Robin Hood-like figure, Yang Tianchun (Ru Rongguang) who serves the poor of his community by day as a doctor, but by night he dons a black outfit and robs the rich to pay for his clinic. The “Iron Monkey” even steals gold directly from the governor’s mansion, inciting a manhunt that ensnares innocent physician Wong Kei Ying (Donnie Yen) who just arrived in town with his young son, Fei Hung (Angie Tsang). After watching him fight off several members of a gang, the local police believe him to be the Iron Monkey, arresting him on the spot. During the trial, the real Iron Monkey arrives to attempt to rescue the innocent Kei Wing, but the innocent doctor is so intent on proving his innocence that he fights the Iron Monkey to a virtual draw. Sensing a nerve, the governor decides to send Kei Ying out to hunt down the masked avenger, keeping his son hostage as insurance.
As an action choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping is a name that is recognizable to even the kung-fu layman. His first major assignment was alongside Jackie Chan on Snake in Eagle’s Shadow in 1978, and since then has gone on to work with virtually every major action star in Hong Kong. Yuen was a major force in shifting HK martial arts films out of the over-rehearsed looking, missed-by-a-mile programmers that dominated the scene in the 70s, into a more elegant, fluid style that retained a street-level feel. Star Donnie Yen never quite broke through to Western audiences in the way that that Jackie Chan and Jet Li have (though, ironically, Yen spent part of his adolescence with his family in Boston) but he’s maintained a high profile career in Hong Kong since getting his start as a stuntman in the early 80s. He rose to prominence as a performer after facing off against Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II; a scene that proved so popular with fans that Li personally intervened on Yen’s behalf and cast him in Hero. There’s also more of an adherence to the laws of physics on the part of the fight sequence participants, which might displease those who are either devotees of that particular school of martial arts storytelling, or who hadn’t seen a martial arts film before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And because the film was made in 1993, there are no attempts made at digital trickery. Iron Monkey is a fun throwback to a simpler era of martial arts film, and one that appeals greatly to those who feel that the tone of self-importance that has formed around the genre in the last decade – yours truly included.
Unfortunately, Iron Monkey has been brutally Americanized by Miramax in an attempt to make it more palatable to the average consumer (the very consumer that will be too busy renting Wesley Snipes movies to give a 25yr old foreign film called Iron Monkey more than 2 seconds of thought.) Good news first – the Blu-Ray picture is quite nice given the limitations of the source material. Colors and detail are quite strong, with deep, inky blacks and good contrast. The bad news is that only the English dub track has been graced with a lossless DTS audio track – purists will have to content themselves with a DD 5.1 Cantonese track. Now the worse news; Miramax have given us the edited US version, shorn of roughly 5 minutes from its original HK running time of 90min. as is usually the case with Hong Kong films, comedic sequences are first on the chopping block, as it’s widely thought that the humor doesn’t travel well (we’ve never seen the longer cut – this is pure conjecture.) Worst still is that the film’s original score and much of the familiar Hong Kong foley effects used during the fight scenes have been replaced – apparently the same people that don’t like Chinese humor don’t care for Chinese sound effects either.