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Film / Iron Monkey

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Iron Monkey, starring Yu Rong-guang and Donnie Yen, is the 1993 fictionalized account of an episode in the childhood of Wong Fei-Hung, better known to American audiences as the protagonist of the smash hit Martial Arts film series Once Upon a Time in China, starring Jet Li. The premise can be summed up in four words: Robin Hood in China!

The titular hero of this film is Doctor Yang Tian-Chun, a philanthropist and master martial artist who runs the only clinic in town. He overcharges the rich and corrupt patients and offers free care to the poor by day. By night, he dons the Iron Monkey costume and goes around beating up corrupt monks and stealing money from the greedy politicians. Hero to the poor, menace to the rich.

While Yang is busy patching up the guards he was beating the crap out of last night and making polite conversation with the man obsessed with catching him, a man named Wong Kei-Ying arrives in town and immediately becomes the victim of an attempted mugging. Wong Kei-Ying is one of the Ten Tigers of Canton, the ten greatest warriors of Real Life 19th Century Southern China, as well as a well-regarded doctor. Travelling with him is his young son Wong Fei-Hung, who will one day inherit his father's Canton Clinic of Po Chi Lam and his status as a folk hero.

Through a series of misunderstandings, Wong Kei-Ying is mistaken for the Iron Monkey by the corrupt local guards. At his trial, however, the REAL Iron Monkey shows up and wreaks havoc, and Wong fights him to a stalemate. Seeing this, the government instead hires Wong to take down the Iron Monkey himself. As added incentive, they take his son hostage and give him one week to do it.

Meanwhile, because the lecherous magistrate has proved incapable of apprehending Iron Monkey, the corrupt Manchu government sends a treacherous Shaolin monk to replace him, setting the stage for a cataclysmic final battle atop a forest of poles in a literal sea of fire.

It's implied that the Iron Monkey inspired the real-life folk hero.

This film contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Orchid is a skilled fighter, able to hold her own against an entire group of Shaolin monks on her own, and it's only when they manage to nail her with some sleeping powder that she's overwhelmed (and she still manages to take one of them out before that happens).
  • Anti-Villain: Chief Fox is the only character working for the corrupt government who isn't portrayed as a complete scumbag. While he occasionally berates his men for incompetence, he does look out for them and is incensed when the magistrate cuts their wages after one too many failures since it means they can't pay for medical attention. He's insulted when a corrupt rich man attempts to bribe him out in the open to look the other way after he makes a ruckus at Yang's clinic and has him arrested (but not before tactfully pocketing the bribe money). When Fei-Hung gets sick while in prison, he allows Yang to take him to the clinic for treatment and kept under effective "house arrest". He also shows disgust with his more evil co-workers. Unsurprisingly he pulls a Heel–Face Turn towards the end.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: The Shaolin monks, despite being Elite Mooks, really love to rub in their abilities, looking down at the guards for their incompetence at needing them to deal with the Iron Monkey (despite failing just as hard), and then they abandon any pretense of superiority when it turns out they're just as corrupt and are willing to kidnap women to rape simply because their skills mean no normal person can stop them.
  • Asshole Victim: The Governor is a rich, hedonistic idiot who denies his villagers and the refugees that come there for help of basic necessities and enforces the law with extreme prejudice when it benefits himself. Because of this, the Iron Monkey has stolen or swindled him out of a large amount of these resources to redistribute it to the disenfranchised masses, and after he tricks him into giving away stored food by pretending to be an imperial official, the real imperial official relieves him and duty and his wives.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Hin-hung, being both the replacement governor and the most dangerous fighter on the bad guy's side hands down. In fact, he's brought in specifically because he has the skills necessary to deal with the Iron Monkey after the previous magistrate's incompetence.
  • Badass Adorable: You might think Wong Fei-Hung would have trouble fighting on his own, but then you remember that his father is a martial arts folk hero, and that he'll grow up to be one himself...
  • Badass Bookworm: Yang is simultaneously an exceptionally competent doctor and a guy who can beat up Shaolin monks and guards without breaking a sweat. Of course, so is Wong Kei-Ying.
  • Badass Normal: Chief Fox has little, if any, martial arts training and only has some decent swordplay to his name. Despite this, he still manages to be the most competent non-martial artist in the movie even if the Old Man still kicks his ass during the finale.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-Ying are afraid they might have to do this if they take too long and the poles burn down in the final fight, and as Hin-hung notes smugly, the flames are so intense they'd burn up long before they could get out. Combined with...
  • Battle atop the Poles: The Trope Codifier. The final fight has Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-Ying teaming up in a three-way fight with Hin-hung, standing and jumping on a forest of poles.
  • Big Bad: Hin-hung.
  • Big Damn Heroes: After Orchid gets hit with the sleeping powder and is about to be raped by the Shaolin monks, Fei-Hung jumps in to hold them off and tells her to get his dad and Yang. He actually manages to win, but he's subsequently attacked and beaten by Witch.
  • Brats with Slingshots: Fei-Hung can't stop using his slingshot to interfere in situations, which causes him (and his father) trouble every time he does it.
  • Calling Your Attacks: All of the named characters do this. Wong Fei-Hung does it specifically to annoy his enemies (as well as reinforce his less-than-stellar memory).
  • Chain Pain: While he usually resorts to bare-fisted martial arts against clearly less-skilled opponents, a competent fighter pulling a melee weapon on Iron Monkey will inevitably cause him to break out his chain weapon in response.
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Hin-hung might have Shaolin training, but that doesn't explain his frankly inhuman levels of strength, which include being able to throw people across rooms or flat out destroy building walls with his strikes.
  • Clothing Combat: Hin-hung's choice of weaponry after his Buddha's Palm fails to kill Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-Ying.
  • Corrupt Church: While the Shaolin Society are supposed to show virtue and provide aid to the refugees, they instead become stooges to the minister, the monks too badass for any meager citizen to do anything about it.
  • Crosscast Role: Wong Fei-Hung was played by young actress Angie Tsang.
  • Dark Action Girl: The Witch, who's able to hold her own in a fight and defeats Fei-Hung after his Big Damn Heroes moment.
  • Deliberate Injury Gambit: Twice during the final battle.
    • Won Kei-Ying is forced to grab the burning end of the pole Hin-hung thrusts at him with his bare hand to let Iron Monkey land a strong strike on their foe.
    • At the end of the fight, Iron Monkey returns the favor by leaping into the air and forcing Hin-hung to focus on him (and getting the burning end of that pole right to his mid-section) to let Won Kei-Ying land a direct hit on Hin-hung and send him crashing down into the fiery ground to his death.
  • Designated Girl Fight: Averted. During the final fight, Orchid and the Witch end up fighting each other, but Wong Kei-Ying jumps in to assist Orchid.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Because of his incompetence, the magistrate ends up being replaced by Hin-hung, a far more competent and terrifying governor who also happens to have Shaolin training.
  • The Dragon: Hin-hung had two, an old man who was tougher than he looked and a scarred woman who was called 'Witch' or 'Ugly Virgin' by the good guys.
  • Dramatic High Perching: The entirety of the final fight takes place on wooden poles above a fiery ground.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Yang and Orchid pretend to be an inspector and his assistant in order to both provide more food to the townspeople and also extort the magistrate for money.
  • Elite Mooks: The Shaolin monks are this, being far more dangerous than the inept guards and actually capable of giving the heroes a fight longer than a few seconds while still being outclassed.
  • Expy: Iron Monkey is basically the Chinese Zorro.
  • Eye Scream: The Witch gets metal balls shot into her eye and she tries to keep fighting!
  • Flashback Effects: During Miss Orchid's flashback, the screen hue turns a vibrant blue.
  • Forced Sleep: While Orchid was defending herself, one of the attackers used a powder that caused sleep (but not instantaneously). The attackers attempted to use it again on Wong Fei-Hung, but it was thrown back.
  • Heel–Face Turn: While he was already showing signs even earlier in the film, Chief Fox undergoes this after Hin-hung abuses Fei-Hung one too many times.
  • Heroic Ambidexterity: Yang is capable of writing two different prescriptions at the same time using both of his hands.
  • Holding Hands: Early in the film, Fei-Hung sees a child holding his father's hand and tries to do the same with his father, only to be scolded for not acting more mature. Later, once the two are reunited, while Wong Kei-Ying praises Fei-Hung for having matured during their separation, he grabs onto Fei-Hung's hand and is clearly reluctant to let go, a fact which doesn't escape Fei-Hung's notice.
  • Human Shield: Hin-hung uses one of the old magistrate's concubines as one to block a pair of daggers.
  • Inspector Javert: Wong Kei-Ying starts to hunt down the Iron Monkey for sympathetic reasons: he just wants to earn him and his son's freedom. However, upon learning that the Iron Monkey is in fact his friend, Yang, he stops his pursuit and joins forces with him to take down Hin-hung.
  • Kill It with Fire: Hin-hung meets his end this way, falling into the burning oil-covered courtyard after being knocked off the safety of the poles.
  • Let's You and Him Fight: The Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-Ying battle in the movie before joining forces.
  • Men Don't Cry: Fei-Hung starts to cry when he believes his father and Dr. Yang have to leave to escape the authorities, and Kei-Ying counters with "men only shed blood, not tears." Immediately subverted as both father and son turn away from each other so they can cry without the other seeing.
  • Mistaken Identity: The governor orders his guards to arrest anyone who has any association with the word "monkey". This includes a man practicing monkey-style kung fu, a man selling monkey palm powder, and a man who sneezes like a monkey, as well as an actual monkey.
  • Noble Top Enforcer: Chief Fox might be directly under the corrupt magistrate and enforce his orders, but he's an Anti-Villain and Reasonable Authority Figure who doesn't take pleasure in any of it and tries to help the heroes when he can by using Loophole Abuse, even getting several scenes where he deals with some actual criminals. When Hin-hung shows up and starts going to far worse lengths, Fox ultimately has enough and rebels.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Chief Fox reveals that he'd actually figured out the Iron Monkey's true identity long ago, but hadn't bothered doing anything about it because he was needed to protect the people from the government.
  • Papa Wolf: Wong Kei-Ying. While he can be a bit harsh on his son at times, everything he does is for his sake.
  • Parasol of Pain: Anyone who has seen the Once Upon a Time movies will appreciate both Wong Kei-Ying and Wong Fei-Hung fighting with an umbrella.
  • Passing the Torch: Yang implies he is doing this by training Fei-Hung in his unique style of martial arts, though he also states that Orchid is more than capable of carrying on his legacy as well.
  • Poison Is Evil: Subverted. While Hin-hung does use poison on both Yang and Wong Kei-Ying through his Buddha's Palm, Yang combats the poison by using the venom from other poisonous creatures as an antidote.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: Iron Monkey's outfit is loose and all black, also covering every facial feature except the eyes, so when Yang suggests one of his neighbors as the titular thief, Fox just sighs and says that everyone's starting to look like they could be the Iron Monkey.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Hinted at during the beginning of the movie, and explored later on. During Orchid's flashback, we learn that she met Yang because he helped deliver her baby; she was a prostitute at a brothel, and it's implied that she became pregnant from one of her clients. Unfortunately, her baby was stillborn, and instead of giving her time to grieve, the owner of the brothel insisted that she immediately get back to serving customers. In a rage, she attacked him with a pair of scissors and was more than ready to die, but Yang defended her, bought her out of the brothel's service, and took her under his wing as his apprentice.
  • Virgin Power: Subverted. While The Witch is a virgin, she is unattractive and very psychotic. Despite this, she lampshades her virginity several times, and even declares that due to it, she has special "you cannot defeat me!" powers. Then she bites it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Hin-hung had two Dragons serving under him, a scarred witch and an old man. We see The Witch buy it, but the Old Man is simply knocked over with an admittedly hard strike.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The townspeople's reaction to Wong Kei-Ying after he offers to catch the Iron Monkey so the magistrate will stop harassing them. Everyone refuses to sell food to him, and even refuse to return his money after taking it and not selling him anything. The only people that ARE willing to sell to him are quickly abused and deterred. Fortunately for him, Kei-Ying finds himself in front of Dr. Yang's clinic just when he starts getting desperate.
  • Wire Fu: Mostly Iron Monkey and occasionally Wong Kei-Ying and Orchid; until Hin-hung shows up, none of the antagonists use this.
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Iron Monkey is very fond of this trope, especially in the original English Dub.
    The Witch: *flourishes her sword and attacks* "Sword of the Virgin!"
    Iron Monkey: *casually dodges her attack and flips her headgear around to block her view* "You're so ugly it's no wonder you're a virgin."
  • Young Future Famous People: Wong Fei-hung serves as his father's Kid Sidekick for the movie and aids both him and The Iron Monkey in the final battle.