As part of baby boomer generation I came of age during the golden age of what is now referred to as grind house cinema. For us back then it was just going to the old run down theaters a subway ride away in Manhattan. The movies were frequently not the best but they the admission was cheap and it past the time in that era before computers and video games. One of the most popular genres that always played in those dank movie houses were the martial arts flick. It was great to sit back staring at unbelievable athletic endeavors accompanied by the worse possible dubbing. The plot was typically the same and there were never any surprises to be found but the flicks were fun and created a true appreciation for the real, professionally done films of the genre. This was a case of knowing what makes a great film but understanding what was so lacking in the others. I tried to apply so of this informally acquired acumen in my consideration of a highly polished, creatively crafted representative of this type of movie; ‘Iron Monkey’. Like many Hong Kong action films a certain amount of controversy surrounds alterations made in an attempt to make the movie more acceptable to American audiences. Because of this several cuts have been released been released both on DVD and in the theaters. The most recent release was from Miramax which included a Blu-ray treatment. The Miramax cut was embraced by grind house aficionado Quentin Tarantino. Its theatrical release was a financial hit with an exceptional box office for a foreign language film. The U.S. release upset many of the genre’s fans especially the purists in the group. What gets me about this entire quagmire with alterations is the debates could be ended once and for all thanks to a little digital feature that has been part of the DVD standards from the beginning; Seamless branching.
When you consider the amazing storage capacity of a Blu-ray disc, some tenfold over a DVD, and the provisions for including multiple versions of the same film via seamless branching, the studios could easily provide more than one edition for a film. Just look at what was done on Blu-ray for ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Not only were three variations included but there was a special feature that tracked the changes as the movie played. Okay, this is most likely cost prohibited for most martial arts films but a high end release would certainly be embraced by the millions of loyal fans. One of the extras provided in this Blu-ray release features a conversation with Tarantino expressing his thoughts on the differences between Asian and American audiences. One thing you have to give the man credit for his unmatched enthusiasm for movies, particularly those of the martial arts variety. As a native New Yorker I was able to easily get past his machine gun style of speaking but for those that have to make an effort the points he made are right on point and presented in an interesting fashion, well worth watching.
One aspect of these films that are often overlooked, mostly by younger viewers, are the classic themes films of this type usually contain. This also permits a comparison of Western and Eastern social structure by how societal values are portrayed. In this film ‘The Iron Monkey’ one theme that is universally understood is employed; the class difference between rich and poor. The titular character has a personal wealth distribution program by stealing from the rich and providing the spoils to the needy. This motif as been a European favorite since medieval times knows to most as Robin Hood. Yang Tianchun (Rongguang Yu) is a respected herbalist and physician by day helping the lower caste by running a clinic whose expenses are covered by overcharging the rich for his professional services. This is one means of health care our government hasn’t considered yet. At night the good doctor Yang dons the distinctive black outfit of the Iron Monkey in order to explore a more direct route to rob from the rich and give to the poor. This also infuses a certain ‘Zorro’ feel to the movie. The remainder of the plot is well constructed with all required elements present. That is to say there is ample opportunity to set the stage for the incredible display of the globally famous Hong Kong style wire enabled martial arts battles. Some political statement is infused into the story when the Iron Monkey steals from the governor resulting in the mobilization of the guards and their Shaolin backup. Honor and public service is vital to understanding the motivation of the characters here. As is the case for almost every film of this nature the plot only needs to provide a gossamer framework for the extremely incredibly well choreographed fight sequences. Unlike the battles we watched as kids the ones done here are truly watching poetry in motion. The director of this film, Woo-ping Yuen, is one of the best known and most sought after action choreographer on the planet. He knows instinctively exactly how to present a movie like this to the sheer delight of the audience.
The Blu-ray presentation is overall acceptable albeit with some reservations. The clarity and level of detail is overly dependent on the distance of the set-up; excellent in close-ups losing quality as the camera pulls back. It looked better on LCD than my plasma possibly due to the way each presents black levels. The audio is very well done but the original Chinese track is inferior to the English dubbed on. Once again there is more than enough room to do things correctly and it’s a shame that Miramax didn’t take full advantage of it. bottom line the film never looked or sounded better but it could have been spectacular.