Iron Fisted Monk Review
Iron Fisted Monk
holds a place in the history of Hong Kong movies because it was both the first Cantonese language release from Golden Harvest (after a move from Mandarin) and also the directorial debut in the prolific career of the great Sammo Hung. For his first film as a Director Sammo also took on the roles as lead star and of course, action choreographer and I am delighted to say that Iron Fisted Monk served as an impressive debut for him as both a film and as a display of his obvious talents that would flourish over the years to come.
In the lead role of Husker Sammo is a man out for revenge against the Manchu's who killed his Uncle Dak and are generally reeking havoc in China (as we discover later in the film to much controversy) in the period Iron Fisted Monk is set. We jump into the story as Sammo is nearing the completion of his training at a Shaolin Temple when impatience gets the better of him as he decides to escape and seek out the Manchu's to take his revenge early. Caught on his way out Sammo is given his last few lessons by the Shaolin Monks before being sent on his way to meet Tak (played by Chen Sing), the Monk who introduced Sammo to the Shaolin Temple so he could train in the Shaolin Arts and eventually take his revenge. It is at this point in the film where we meet Liang, a student of Tak's whose sister has just suffered a brutal rape by a head of a gang of local Manchu's. Also out for revenge Liang kills a Manchu whereupon he and his workplace become the target of the Manchu gang. Husker of course becomes embroiled in all of this, which eventually leads to a final showdown consisting of the double team, Husker and Tak, against the Manchu's for what really is a stunning finale.
Played out with the traditional sense of charm and comical nature that many early Hong Kong martial arts films use Iron Fisted Monk is a fine debut piece from Sammo Hung who himself is on top form as he puts in a delightful performance as Husker while the rest of the cast also do a fine, if a little by the book, job. One area of Iron Fisted Monk that has sparked controversy, and indeed BBFC cuts to the tone of 1minute and 16seconds are the two rape scenes that alongside the general comical nature of the film do not quite fit but they do play a role in the films story. Although I am generally against censorship I certainly see no problem with the compulsory cuts here as they have been handled with care and leave the aims of the rape scenes - which is to get the audience also wanting revenge against the Manchu's - intact and considering the scenes as they are can cause the viewer a level of discomfort I dread to think what another minute may have done to the scenes in question.
Basically Iron Fisted Monk is a revenge film and while it is not going to win any awards for originality in the story department it could certainly take on any film of recent times and stand proud as far as the stunning displays of martial arts choreography is concerned. Featuring an array of classic Hong Kong stars (James Tien, Cassanova Wong and Dean Shek to name a few) and some of the finest choreography in the traditional martial arts style Sammo and his team have crafted a film that is often beautiful to watch in the many fight sequences thanks to the graceful movement, exquisite timing and outstanding execution from the flexible Sammo Hung, Chen Sing and (to a lesser degree) their opponents. But then, just when you think the film will continue in the true traditional sense (which is no bad thing) Sammo cranks the style up a notch for the 10-minute finale where Sammo and Chen Sing show off their skills as a double act for some gloriously fast and fluid action that not only looks fantastic thanks to the superb use of camera angles and subtle camera moves that Sammo employs but also packs a mighty punch to ensure complete satisfaction for the viewer.
This DVD is coded for both Regions 2 & 4.
We have all come to expect so much from the Hong Kong Legends restoration team and yet again they have delivered the goods and while Iron Fisted Monk fails to match the sheer beauty of the Magnificent Butcher transfer it comes very close and never ceases to impress. Following the trend of their recent releases HKL have managed to find a print that is almost devoid of damage showing very little in the form of dirt (although there are some noticeable occasions where what looks to be hair can be seen onscreen) or lines (bar a thin vertical black line in the films opening martial arts demonstration that lasts for a few seconds). More noticeable forms of print damage come in the form of a white dot on the print that outstays its welcome by a full 8-minutes (it starts around the 22-minute mark) and a brief section of the film that exhibits what can only be described as a soft, uneven blue overlay that has presumably come about through the poor storage methods for prints in Hong Kong and while easy to spot does not necessarily detract from the image quality, it merely impedes it for a minute or so. The final area for complaint comes with the films title sequence that, shot on location in Korea exhibits a high level of grain and the more general print damage you might expect and while detail levels and colour rendition are slightly off in this opening section of the film the same cannot be said for what follows.
Before I continue I must stress that these faults are negligible and most likely barely noticeable to the casual viewer as for every second of faults there are many minutes of footage (i.e. the rest of the film!) that contains a minimal level of grain, a decent level of detail that rises to the superb for close-ups while both colour and black levels are rendered with the same kind of expertise we have come to expect from the premier Hong Kong DVD label in the UK.
Hong Kong Legends have again provided us with Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes of both the original Cantonese Language track and the English Dub track. For the purpose of this review I concentrated, as I always do, on the original Language track that provided a decent rendition of the films audio with clear vocals via the centre speaker and a good level of separation for both the films sound effects and musical score across the front speakers. I failed to notice any use of the rear speakers and while this does not bother myself in the least those expecting the full DD5.1 experience (there is always one!) from this 1977 film will surely be disappointed! While I never fully tested the English DD5.1 track I did sample it on occasion and while the voice-acting seemed better than usual it is worth noting that the film contained an alternative score for certain scenes (the fight at the Dye factory for example) while the DD5.1 mix was distinctly 'muffled' when compared to the Cantonese track. Both English and Dutch subtitles are available and are to the same high standard we have come to expect.
Hong Kong Legends October/November Sammo Hung double bill (Iron Fisted Monk and Encounters of the Spooky Kind) are slightly disappointing in the extras department for both reasons that were beyond HKLs control (the events of September 11th meant Sammo could not fly out to the UK to take part in the Commentary tracks) and very much in their control (the Biography and Restoration Featurette) - read on to find out exactly why these latter supplements disappoint.
Despite Sammo's absence for the Audio Commentary you are still in for another informative and consistently entertaining commentary track thanks to HKL regular Bey Logan who retains his typically energetic approach to the genre and indeed this film. Talking about a film from his all time hero Bey gives us a huge amount of background information on both the story and its characters (that like Magnificent Butcher are based on historical figures), the cast and crew and of course points out dozens of little things that would otherwise pass us by. As ever Bey is easy to listen too, enthusiastic and never stuck for words making this commentary another one you will return to whenever you feel like an alternative soundtrack to the film or a lesson in Hong Kong Cinema and is of course, highly recommended for those purposes.
The Photo Gallery offers the traditional set of stills from the film alongside a couple of original theatrical posters while the Trailer section of the disc contains the HKL Promotional Trailer for Iron Fisted Monk alongside the original Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer. Both are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen yet while the HKL Promotional version is presented in the original 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio the Original Theatrical Trailer comes in an aspect ratio that is more akin to how a Non-Anamorphic 2:35:1 picture would look on a Widescreen TV! Also present in the Trailers section are the HKL Promotional Trailers for their ever growing Sammo Hung collection, Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Magnificent Butcher and Eastern Condors.
The 22-minute Animated Biography Showcase is Part One of the HKL Sammo Hung story that has already been featured on their Eastern Condors and Magnificent Butcher releases and is of course an in-depth look into Sammo's life up until his 1985 feature Heart of the Dragon. What is most disappointing here is how on past discs this biography was featured on we have been promised Part Two of the Sammo Hung story which was set to appear on both Iron Fisted Monk and Encounters of the Spooky Kind DVDs but sadly it has failed to materialise on either release presumably leaving us with a long wait until the next high profile Sammo Hung release from HKL comes around.
Moving into the Features Archive section of the disc we first of all find a 10-minute interview with the films Director and Star Sammo Hung which pleasingly is made up entirely of new footage that focuses completely on Iron Fisted Monk. Including Sammo's thoughts on Cassanova Wong and the Hong Kong audiences demands of the times this is an interesting piece that will entertain fans of Sammo's work. You will also find a Restoration Featurette in this section of the disc and to say that I have conflicting thoughts regarding this 20-minute featurette would be an understatement! As something that HKL have been asked to produce by fans of their work for a long time now I was expecting an in-depth look at the restoration process, possibly with detailed step-by-step looks into each separate area of their discs production but sadly what we have been given looks far more like a 'made for TV' promotional piece. Completely self indulgent (although they do deserve it) this piece is aimed more at the casual DVD buyer as it features a huge number of promotional film clips (annoyingly presented for the most part in the wrong aspect ratio), a Trailer style voice-over, several quotes from various publications (including a quote from our very own Simon Wyndham's Iron Monkey review) and at best mildly interesting looks into the various stages of a discs production. For the hardcore fan the looks into restoration and creation of the discs is shallow to say the least with the only saving grace coming in the form of a tantalising glimpse of what is to come in 2002 via a myriad of film clips. So why am I conflicted as to my feelings towards this featurette? Well, if it was intentionally produced for Television and actually broadcast then it would serve them well as it would surely bring in more revenue which is only good for the Hong Kong film fan, and as such its inclusion would be expected (in the same way HKL included their TV-Spots for the Bruce Lee releases on the Game of Death Platinum Edition) but, if this featurette was produced specifically for the DVD market then it is a definite missed opportunity that will especially begin to vex if it becomes a standard inclusion on HKL releases from this point onwards. I guess we will have to wait and see...
Like many of Sammo Hung's films Iron Fisted Monk is definitely for adults only as it sees a far greater level of violence (and some brief nudity) than you would expect in say a Jackie Chan title so with that warning in place I would highly recommend this film to any fans of traditional style martial arts films and of course to all you Sammo Hung fans out there, make sure you buy this! The HKL DVD is a fine effort that offers the best audio-visual experience you can expect from a film of this vintage, the cuts are a non-issue in my mind and while the extra features are a slight let down I see no reason to not recommend this particular release as I doubt it could be bettered by anyone but HKL themselves.