The Iron Fisted Monk (1977)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-05-06
The opening scenes of “Iron Fisted Monk” show not only the evil Manchus but also the oppressed and discouraged Han Chinese who, with the necessary exception of Sammo Hung, simply stand around and look scared while Manchu tough guys smash up market stalls and kill an old man. It is well done if standard Hong Kong filmmaking—we see that the Manchus are bad, the Han are dispirited, the titular monk has finely honed kung fu skills but also takes the long view of things and Hawker (Sammo) is fearless but foolhardy. When Sammo winds up at the Shaolin Temple it isn’t surprising that he is so eager to go back home to slaughter Manchus that he leaves long before he has completed the arduous course. A fast learner, he has learned more than enough kung fu to deal with anyone who crosses him.

His ability to retreat to Shaolin illustrates one of the constant themes of Hong Kong martial arts movies; when things are at their very worst—your family slaughtered, beaten within and inch of your life, the countryside alive with spies willing to turn you in to your enemies and the enemies are well armed and seemingly invincible—there is always a place of refuge. And it isn’t only a sanctuary where you will be safe—there is always someone there who will take thing in hand and change your life, someone from whom you will learn kung fu, patriotism and the real meaning of life and who will set you on the path to avenge your family and rescue China from foreign overlords. It is never easy but it always works.

Among the Manchu villains the toughest and most expert in kung fu is the local overlord another evergreen device in martial arts movies. After Sammo and Chan Sing kill all the guards, officers, hired killers and low level Manchu officials, avenging the murders, rapes and humiliations suffered by the Han, they are faced with Wang Hsieh. He is the highest ranking bureaucrat, a guy who struts about in brocade robes and who is in charge of keeping order in the district. Wang is almost their match—it takes both of them to defeat him.

There are two rape scenes in “Iron Fisted Monk”, both of which result in the death of the victim, the first by her own hand in the aftermath of her ravaging. The rapist is Fung Hark On—his name in the credits almost guarantees some vicious evildoing. The following have were among the roles he had before this movie: Fung’s thug, Gan’s thug, Yu Chow Kai’s thug, Chief’s casino thug, ruffian, robber, thug, killer with glasses, main thug and villain. The initial scene, the assault on Ah Niu’s sister, is especially violent and graphic—Sammo’s camera lingers over it for far too long.

There is an almost obligatory scene of Hawker teaching kung fu to the workers at the dye plant—the Iron Fisted Monk has been too busy—but this one has a very odd twist. The dye workers are enthusiastic and seem to be learning quickly and Hawker looks and acts like a real sifu. But the training is completely ineffective—when the Manchu despots realize that mere commercial fraud won’t be enough to break the spirit of the Han and they move to mass slaughter, they kill all of the workers while (it seems) suffering almost no causalities themselves. This may be the least useful set of kung fu lessons ever.

This was the first of 26 movies that Sammo Hung directed—and the first of only five that he wrote. It would be nice to say that one could see the potential here for all the artistry that characterized much of his later work but that would be “reading in” the later 25 works into this one. It is a decent revenge/kung fu movie of its time, terribly melodramatic with a choppy script and static direction. It is most useful in showing how far Sammo Hung has come since 1976.
Reviewer Score: 5