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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

The Iron-Fisted Monk Blu-ray Review


Arrow Video

Blu-ray Release: October 24, 2023

Video: 2.40:1/1080p/Color

Audio: Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 1.0 Mono; Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono; English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 (classic dub) and 2.0 Stereo (DVD dub)

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Run Time: 93:08

Director: Sammo Hung Kam-bo


Rice miller Luk (Sammo Hung) is just a simple man trying to live a quiet life until, one day, the Manchu Bannermen bully their way through town, killing his uncle in the process. When a nearby Shaolin monk, San De (Chen Sing), easily defeats them and sees the fallen Luk, he offers him a chance to learn martial arts at the Shaolin Temple. However, Luk’s impatience with his training sees him return to his town to witness an even more ruthless organization of Manchus, led by a depraved official (Fung Hak-An), who has a nasty and violent habit of taking whatever (and whoever) he wants. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



Having cemented his reputation as an actor, stunt performer, and martial arts choreographer, a young Sammo Hung Kam-bo was looking to graduate to a director’s chair. With help from Lady Whirlwind (1972) and Hapkido (1972) director Huang Feng, he approached Golden Harvest head Raymond Chow, who agreed to give him a shot and told him to put together a screenplay. After Huang provided an outline, which Cantonese dialogue writer Setzo On (note: IMDb credits Yu Ting, which might be an alias?) polished, Hung delivered a script and set to work making his directorial debut: The Iron-Fisted Monk (1977). As the first such work from an auteur-level mega-star, The Iron-Fisted Monk ties neatly into the array of films that would follow and is a marvelous example of a new director quickly establishing his control as a full-process writer, performer, choreographer, and all-around filmmaker. The Iron-Fisted Monk catches martial arts cinema in a transition between the Fist of Fury-esque, nationalistic revenge dramas and the rise of pure kung fu comedies. As such, it fits neatly among his early Yuen Biao collaborations, Knockabout (aka: The Fearless Master, 1979) and The Prodigal Son (1981), though those films did refine the combination of slapstick and complex action. It’s a firm step on the road to Hung’s trademark filmmaking, as well as that of his Peking Opera brother Jackie Chan and other Hong Kong New Wave leaders (it also has a remarkable number of plot points and themes in common with Lau Kar-leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which was released a year later in 1978), but the specter of Bruce Lee’s industry-shifting work is still hanging over the film, leading to some truly heinous villains and truly vicious acts of violence. It doesn’t feel entirely out of step with Hung’s future work (for example – the Rain Man-esque character drama Heart of Dragon (1985) ends with a string of brutal action scenes) – but is enough to cause some startling tonal whiplash. Often, this is a good thing that keeps us on our toes emotionally between breathless bouts of action and gives us a better idea as to the breadth of Hung’s talent, even as he was still learning the ropes.



Unfortunately, the most extreme viciousness is directed at women, reminding us that misogyny would become an ongoing issue for Hung. Naturally, it’s not just a Sammo Hung problem and connects to larger shifts in world cinema as censorship waned and audiences demanded increasingly transgressive imagery. However, there’s no mistaking a pattern in the way women are treated in a lot of Hung’s work. For instance, his genre-defining horror-comedy classic Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), which ends on a ‘funny’ freeze-frame of brutal spousal abuse. Iron-Fisted Monk’s women aren’t the butt of crude jokes, though. Instead, they’re the victims of physical abuse, including a surprisingly graphic rape scene that earned the film a retroactive Cat. III rating. It’s not really more extreme or objectionable than what you’d see from early Italian cannibal movies, Shaw Bros. horror films, or post-Wild Bunch westerns, but it might come across as really shocking in the midst of an otherwise action-packed, mid-’70s kung fu movie. This isn’t necessarily a condemnation, but I do think Iron-Fisted Monk deserves a stern content warning.


Bibliography

  • Sammo Hung, the One and Only by Lam Chiu-wing (from Golden Harvest: Leading Change in Changing Times, Hong Kong Film Archives, 2013)

  • Sammo Hung: Making Kung Fu Comedies to Showcase My Strengths interviews by Cheung Chi-sing and Po Fung (from When the Wind Was Blowing Wild: Hong Kong Cinema of the 1970s, Hong Kong Film Archive, 2018)



Video

It appears that Iron-Fisted Monk skipped an official VHS release here in the United States, but Twentieth Century Fox did put out a nice anamorphic DVD back in 2004. Blu-rays have previously been issued by Sony in Scandinavia and Eureka in the UK as part of a triple feature with Eastern Condors (1987) and The Magnificent Butcher (1979). Arrow’s disc utilizes the same 2K restoration of original film elements supplied by rights holder Fortune Star, though do note that this is the complete, uncut release. The Sony and Eureka discs feature slightly censored rape scenes (including fogged pubic hair and zoomed shots to disguise thrusting).


Most of these Fortune Star transfers look basically the same and this 1080p, 2.40:1 disc looks especially similar to the recent Prodigal Son release. Cinematographer Li Yu-Tang’s buoyant colors are nicely reproduced, as is the slightly overcooked lighting that sort of implies a perpetual case of sunrise/set. The lighting is harsh enough to bounce a lot of shine off of the sweaty faces, which looks weird, but I expect was present in the original material. Details and textures are consistent, but there is a minor over-sharpening problem, leading to minor haloes in some wide-angle shots and a noisy quality to the film grain. It looks more uniform and natural in motion than it does on the page.



Audio

Iron-Fisted Monk comes fitted with three different language options and a total of five uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio tracks all together. Being a Hong Kong film from the ‘70s, it was shot without sound, so all tracks are dubbed. There is a 5.1 DVD remix of the Cantonese dub available here, but I’d recommend sticking with the original mono for authenticity’s sake (the remix isn’t very well done, either). The Mandarin dub is only presented in mono and is actually sharper and cleaner than the Cantonese track, which is unfortunate, given the superior Cantonese performance and lip sync. The final two options are two completely different English dubs – the classic theatrical version and a 2.0 Stereo DVD remix. The theatrical option is preferable and features a number of familiar dub voices. Frankie Chan’s soundtrack is about as traditional as they come for a made-in-the-‘70s period piece, to the point that I suspect there are recycled cues between this and other films. Again, the music sounds best on the Mandarin track, but isn’t overly muffled or tinny on any of the dubs.



Extras

  • Commentary with Frank Djeng – This track is borrowed from Eureka’s UK release and features everyone’s favorite Asian film expert doing what he does best, discussing the making of the film (with special focus on it being Hung’s directorial debut), the context in which it was made (he tentatively refers to Iron-Fisted Monk as the first kung fu comedy), the wider careers of the cast & crew (including dub performers), the early history of Golden Harvest, and the various martial arts styles utilized throughout the film. Having been recorded in 2019, before he became the stalwart commentator of English language Hong Kong Blu-rays, Djeng talks a bit more about himself and his own work.

  • Interviews with actor/director Sammo Hung:

    • Interview 1 (9:37, SD) – Hung chats about his career leading up to Iron-Fisted Monk, working with Huang Feng and the director’s contributions to the screenplay, the traditional stories that inspired the story and characters, the cast, choreography, and the importance of casual dialogue in action comedies.

    • Interview 2 (6:00, SD) – A bit more from Hung on the early part of his career.

  • Interview with actor Casanova Wong (17:05, HD) – This archival interview with the Korean (real name: Ki Wong-ho) was recorded some time in “the early 2000s” and features Wong’s thoughts on his collaboration with Hung, his early training, his work on film, and the effect Bruce Lee’s work had on his own career.

  • Hong Kong trailer

  • Image gallery



The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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