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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Iron Monkey aka Siu nin Wong Fei Hung ji: Tit Ma Lau [Blu-ray]


(Roger Michell, 2002)



Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Media Asia, Golden Harvest, LS Pictures

Video: Buena Vista Home Entertainment



Region: FREE (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 1:25:57.485

Disc Size: 22,597,436,487 bytes

Feature Size: 20,064,043,008 bytes

Average Bitrate: 24.22 Mbps

Chapters: 18

Case: Locking Blu-ray case

Release date: September 15th, 2009



Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video






DTS-HD Master Audio English 4145 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 4145 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 24-bit)
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Spanish 320 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 320 kbps / Dolby Surround



English (SDH), English, Spanish, none



• Interview with Quentin Tarantino – in SD (9:19)
• Interview with Donnie Yen – SD (6:21)




Come September 15, Miramax will release "The Ultimate Force of Four" – a title that doesn't bode well for the Asian martial arts movies they have had tucked away in their vaults: three from China or Hong Kong, one from Japan: Hero, Iron Monkey, The Legend of Drunken Master and Zatoichi. Typical of movies from China, much less so with Japanese films, the versions distributed in the West might be different in any number of ways: they might be cut differently, with new music, and are likely to be dubbed in English.

Prior to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it was taken as gospel that Americans would not go to the theater to see a subtitled movie outside of an "art theatre", certainly not in numbers that would make distribution profitable. For the most part, Americans who have seen Hong Kong movies on home video, especially those of Jackie Chan, know only the English-dubbed versions, complete with new musical cues that someone thought would be more digestible to Westerners.

With these new Blu-ray editions, Miramax had the opportunity to set the record straight – or, at least provide the original or international cut, a practice that oftentimes serves little purpose on video than to seduce potential buyers into believing they are getting something special. Alas, we find only the English dub in uncompressed audio for Iron Monkey and Hero, though both have passable Chinese tracks in Dolby Digital 5.1. The Legend of Drunken Master fared less well.




Iron Monkey suffers also in that it is presented here only in the cut Miramax provided for its North American distribution. The balance between comedy and violence is made to be more agreeable to Western audiences – the ones who can't or won't read subtitles, we must presume. (On the other hand, I'm no fan of undercranking, which the original version suffers from during some of the fight scenes.) And a new music score was also composed. OK, this isn't a case like the seriously truncated Seven Samurai with which many Americans first became acquainted, but to not have both versions is a missed opportunity as well as, I want to believe, a miscalculation. It would be nice if this collection of Blu-rays, especially the Chinese movies, is not purchased in huge numbers but, instead, rented; and that the distributor will learn the right message from this. They certainly won't pay much attention to those reviewers, many I imagine, who feel much as I do.

The Movie : 7 (8)
Westerners may know him as Robin Hood or Zorro, but Chinese know him as Wong Fei Hung of countless stories, legends and movies. The best known of these to us on this side of the planet are the Once upon a Time in China trilogy of movies with a young Jet Li. Wong Fei Hung is an historical figure from the early twentieth century, not to be confused with the fictional Fong Sai Yuk, also with Jet Li. Here, the hero is Donnie Yen. No, wait a moment, the Fei Hung in this story is played by 13-year old Tsang Sze-Man (aka: Angie Tsang, a girl no less, of whom you'd a thought would have had quite career in martial arts films, but seems not, choosing instead to compete in world class wushu competition.) Donnie Yen plays Fei Hung's father, Kei Ying, but he's not Iron Monkey either, as you might expect, though, in the tradition of the Dread Pirate Roberts, Kei Ying kind of inherits the mantle after a considerable amount of plot wringing. From Iron Monkey (Yu Rongguang) Kei Ying learns new martial arts skills and, together, they confront the Shaolin traitor, Hin-Hung (Yam Sai Kwoon) in a brilliantly staged fight on top of burning poles.


Image: 7/8  NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.

The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale.  The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.


However we might feel about the cut of the film, I can't say that I found a great deal to complain about in respect to the transfer. The main difficulty I had was with its seemingly arbitrary vacillation between flat and dimensional contrast. Each taken by itself was OK – the flatter material looking fairly painterly, but the alternation was disconcerting. I found no disturbances in the force (artifacts, enhancements, noise) that made me anxious for longer than a few seconds at time. Sharpness, resolution and color are all satisfactory.

















Audio & Music : 6/6

As mentioned, Miramax opted to give its own English dub the front and center seat with a lossless audio mix – not that this gets it very far. The mix is good at whacking, but short on subtlety. The Chinese Dolby Digital 5.1 is to be preferred on religious grounds, but isn't quite as transparent as the DTS-HD. Neither one is all that concerned with precise directional cues for the surrounds. Those that are so kind of stick out of the context.

Operations : 7
The menu functions are clearly laid out with descriptions and timings of each feature. I don't much care for the disproportionately large and, on my OPPO, non-removable time line during fast forward and back.



Extras : 3
Quentin Tarantino talks about the difference in temperament between American and Chinese audiences and makes some insightful points about movie-watching expectations in general. He also touches on the differences in various kung fu fighting styles as choreographed in the movies. Ironically, it was Tarantino's backing that made this movie in the Miramax cut that helped Iron Monkey to become the success it was in the U.S. Donnie Yen talks about how he got into both martial arts and the movies (he was born in Canton, and lived in the U.S. for 7 years as a teenager), as well as his contribution to the fighting style in Iron Monkey. Both Tarantino and Donnie Yen give plenty of nod to the film's director, Yuen Woo Ping, who has since become a household word in the staging of martial effects special effects, as seen in Once Upon a Time in China, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, and Kill Bill. Compared to the extra features on the R2 Hong Kong Legends Platinum Edition DVD, these are slim pickins indeed.



Recommendation : 5

I had hopes that these Weinstein/Dimension/Miramax/Disney imports would allow for original or international versions of the film on Blu-ray. Alas, not. They have chosen only their own cuts – for whatever reason. If you have the R2 Hong Kong Legends 2-disc Platinum Edition DVD of Iron Monkey, you really don't want to give it away. It has hours of relevant special features, including an audio commentary with Donnie Yen and HK Cinema expert, Bey Logan. And it makes use of the more coherent international cut of the film. It even has both the original Cantonese dialogue and English subtitles. That transfer, freshly re-mastered at the time, is plenty good enough in terms of both image and audio to suffice until a proper Blu-ray comes along.

Leonard Norwitz
September 14th, 2009



About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

The LensView Home Theatre:





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