The Iron Monkey (1977)
Director: Chen Kuan Tai
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: Hui Lou Chen, Chen Kuan Tai and Mu Chuan Chen

The Plot: Chen Kuan Tai plays the spoiled son of a well respected man of the community. The young man usually gets everything he wants and was blessed with the name of “Iron”, which is rather ironic since he is as soft as a pillow. When the Manchu come and capture his father, Iron is unable to help out in any way possible due to his lack of martial skill. He is ultimately forced to watch as his father is taken away and imprisoned. After this unfortunate event, Iron runs away into the forest and begins hiding in trees in order to keep away from all civilized beings. When he desperately needs food, he turns to breaking into a Shaolin temple in an attempt to gather food. When he is eventually busted, he decides to join Shaolin and learn Kung Fu. The students all seem to ostracize him, treating him poorly and looking to antagonize him. He is told that there is much anger in his heart by the head priest, so Iron swears not to fight anyone and throws himself headfirst into his training. Upon graduation, all Shaolin students are given the opportunity to choose a style to focus on. There is one style however that few ever grow to master and that is Shaolin Monkey Fist, which limits the student from learning any other styles due to its incredible difficulty. Iron begins his rigorous training though and failure is not an option! Will he learn this most difficult style and if so, will he go on towards his path of vengeance?

The Review
I realize that I start off a number of my reviews with this same phrase, but in this case it has never been more true: I have been meaning to see The Iron Monkey for years. Quite literally, years! I actually had a copy of the movie in the early 2000’s, but unfortunately I lost it somewhere along the way before having the chance to give it a watch. Knowing that with this years Kung Fu Christmas spectacular that I wanted to gear my film viewing in the direction of classic martial arts cinema, I knew The Iron Monkey was something that I wanted to see ahead of all others. Chen Kuan Tai has slowly become a favorite of mine recently and he certainly has his fans out there who equally adore his work. He absolutely had his own style of performance and was one of the more versatile stars within the genre during the seventies and eighties. He could be stoic and honorable when needed, but he could play the flip side of that coin as well. A well received actor, The Iron Monkey was a passion project from Chen Kuen Tai as it marked his most successful step into the director’s seat and without question, it makes for some his very best work period!
True, there isn’t an exorbitant amount of originality within The Iron Monkey, but that hardly ever seems to be a real detriment towards any Kung Fu film. The few doses of original content that are gelled together with the excellent handling of genre film staples, that’s what makes a Kung Fu film become something special for the fans. The concept of Monkey Fist Kung Fu, which seems to have a new name in every movie I see it in, has no doubt been done more than a few times. Although this film here apparently predates Liu Chia-Liang’s (aka Lau Kar Leung) very famous Mad Monkey Kung Fu, I imagine there are other titles that came before this one that used the same idea to focus on this particular style of Kung Fu. The ideas that Chen Kuan Tai uses to demonstrate this style are unquestionably his own creation, however. I particularly like how the film opens up. Similar to many Shaw Bros. introductions, we get to see Chen Kuan-Tai demonstrating his form for the camera, but the fun part comes when the voice over narration informs us that Monkey Fist is a nearly unbeatable form of Kung Fu due to its awkward nature, but the only other style that dares challenge it would be Eagle style. So, with two battling animal styles, what better way to demonstrate their unique ability for the audience than to have a legitimate monkey have a fight with a legitimate eagle? Similar to seventies-era Italy, the laws prohibiting cruelty to animals were pretty lax apparently.

The scene is tame in comparison to the Italian cannibal genre and such however, don’t get me wrong. I doubt either animal was seriously injured during this, but for card carrying PETA members this still might agitate you. It might also agitate you to see Chen Kuan Tai sparring with a monkey some time later in the film as well, during the pre-requisite training sequence. He doesn’t actually punch the monkey square in the face or anything like that, he just sort of pats at its hands as if preparing to stop the monkey’s fists. This training sequence, which is an offspring of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin like almost all training sequences of this sort are, is one of the more entertaining segments in the film. In fact, everything that happens at Shaolin is quite fun. We see Chen Kuan Tai being bullied by his classmates and his resolute promise to not hurt anyone with his martial skill, it helps endear the character Iron to those of us in the audience. Up until this point in the movie, he might come across as a bit whiny but it is during this sequence where we really begin to see this man as a human being. While I had hoped to see his Shaolin classmates come around, and befriend Iron, by making the character such an outcast in all facets of life you can’t help but feel some sympathy for this character at the end of the day
The film seems to take place during the start of the Ching dynasty, as the Manchu have taken over China and are at this point just now taking up arms against Shaolin who hold a shaky truce with the group in the early goings of this film. Taking a guess, I would say the movie is supposed to be set during the early to mid 1600’s. Chen Kuan Tai does a good job in presenting his film as if it were a big Shaw Bros. spectacle, despite the movie being a Indie production likely shot in Taiwan. Knowing the Shaw style so well, Chen brings his expertise to the project and it never manages to look dull or uninteresting throughout. The sets are beautifully decorated, the costumes are well crafted and the film features a quality cast of familiar faces in front of and behind the scenes. It is unfortunate that so little information exists out there for the context of how this film was made, but I must admit that I am very curious. Ni Kuang wrote the script and many of the actors in the film were Shaw Bros. regulars, if not contractually obligated stock actors. How it worked for them to be able to go between productions, I am not sure.

One area that I really liked about the film, and when I mention additions to regular Kung Fu canon this is what I’m talking about, this movie doesn’t just delve directly into the black and white territory. In fact, this movie has some serious moral implications and question marks rolling through it at times. There is a sequence somewhere after the initial kidnapping of the Iron character’s father, where in a prison cell we see one of the more disturbing sequences I have seen in a Kung Fu film, period. Rather than allowing his son Iron to be caught by the Ching, Iron’s father kills a small boy who attempts to tell the Ching where Iron’s location may be. It isn’t often within the Kung Fu genre that you will see a small boy strangled to death, heck it isn’t often that you’ll see that in any kind of movie! The boy is literally choked to the point of seeing blood pour from his mouth. This brutal crime is simply the start of horrible deeds done in the act of either protecting Iron or allowing him to have his vengeance. After Iron’s initial training, he leaves Shaolin and goes to work undercover for the Ching army that have destroyed his family, but what makes the entire situation so morbid is that he is forced to commit atrocities towards his people while impressing the brass. All of this is done in an attempt to reach their top man and have his vengeance, but it still remains hard to forgive. Not only does he kill peasants during this, but he is also inevitably tasked with killing Shaolin men. This throws an incredible question mark into the movie, as we no longer really know what to make of the Iron character. This is part of what really works for Iron Monkey on a structural level. In a genre of repeated concepts, any new idea is a good idea and this moral ambiguity that the movie proposes struck me as totally engaging.

The Conclusion
While I have to admit that anyone who claims the film is generally “by the books”, wouldn’t be wholly incorrect. However, Chen Kuan Tai absolutely delivers 100% on every level in creating a successful genre film within this market. Ever nail is hammered down completely and I have to say I absolutely loved every second of it. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you’ve got nothing standing in your way: check this one out, pronto! A four out of five, for epic martial arts mayhem and moral conundrums!