The Iron-Fisted Monk [三德和尚與舂米六] (1977)
AKA Iron Fisted Monk, San Te & Chong Mi-Liu

Starring Sammo Hung, Chan Sing, James Tin Jun, Lo Hoi-Pang, Chu Ching, Wang Hsieh, Fung Hak-On, Yeung Wai, Dean Shek Tin, Yen Shi-Kwan, Wu Ma, Casanova Wong, Eric Tsang, Chin Yuet-Sang, Chung Fat, Chiu Hung, Fung Fung, Lam Ching-Ying

Directed by Sammo Hung

Expectations: Interested to see this again.

Sammo Hung left the Shaw Brothers studio in the early 1970s to help kick-start Golden Harvest as an actor, stuntman, and action choreographer. Golden Harvest kept him very busy in the years leading to The Iron-Fisted Monk, giving him ample opportunity to hone his skills and develop new ones simultaneously. I don’t know if Sammo finally felt he was up to the task of directing his own film in 1977, or if Golden Harvest finally relented to his requests, but the finished film demonstrates that Sammo was definitely ready to add a new feather to his cap. I first saw this film a few years ago when I watched my way through Sammo’s entire directorial filmography; at the time I thought it was a pretty good debut, but not especially great. At some level, I still agree with myself, but watching the film within the context of its Shaw contemporaries reveals it to be a more impressive movie than it initially appeared.

Chong Mi-Liu (Sammo Hung) is a mischievous student at the Shaolin Temple. He began studying there after Manchu thugs bullied his uncle and killed him. Chong was unable to fight them off, but thankfully the revered Shaolin monk San Te (Chan Sing) — the same character that Gordon Liu plays in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin — takes control of the situation and shows the thugs the power of Shaolin training. Chong is like many heroes out for revenge, though, and waiting for the completion of his training is just not an option. Chong remembers how Hu Hui-Chien — the folk hero Chi Kuan-Chun plays in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films — left Shaolin early, so he decides to do the same. For those keeping track of Shaolin lore, according to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin San Te was the monk who trained Hung Hsi-Kuan, so this and Chong’s knowledge of Hu would place this film sometime after the majority of the Shaw Brothers Shaolin films. The Chinese title of The Iron-Fisted Monk is a lot like those Shaw films, as well, simply stating the characters names: San Te & Chong Mi-Liu. Any disappointment about there not being an iron-fisted monk can be attributed to yet another misleading English title. Apparently, both characters are Chinese folk heroes (the original trailer states as much), but I couldn’t find any specific info on Chong.

Surprisingly though, Chong’s revenge is not what The Iron-Fisted Monk focuses on. Instead, his revenge is merely a catalyst for his training and exodus from Shaolin. The true story of the film involves Chong being framed for murder when he attempts to help people in need like San Te did for him. While Chong beats up a Manchu thug, an enraged man, Liang (Lo Hoi-Pang), who just found out his sister was raped by a group of Manchus, stabs the defenseless man to death. The murdered Manchu’s friends run to tell their rape-fiend boss (Fung Hak-On), but they only saw Chong and thus he is now being hunted for murder. Chong may have thought he was ready to take his Shaolin skills on the road, but he isn’t nearly as polished as San Te. Following up on Chong’s revenge isn’t necessary for the film, but I do think that the shifting focus without resolution is something that hinders the film from being as dramatically successful as it could be.

In spite of the rape and murder subject matter, The Iron-Fisted Monk is partly a comedy. Sammo has apparently claimed that the film was the first kung-fu comedy, and while it did release before Jackie’s collaborations with Yuen Woo-Ping, Lau Kar-Leung’s The Spiritual Boxer featured a similar mix of genres a full two years prior to Sammo’s film. The Iron-Fisted Monk might not be the first, but it is a strong link between Lau’s early work and the Jackie Chan/Yuen Woo-Ping blockbusters. But beyond this, a good portion of Sammo’s films are attempts at joining serious drama with comedy and action, with each film leaning more into one of the components. For instance, Heart of Dragon heavily favors drama, while Enter the Fat Dragon leans towards comedy, etc. The Iron-Fisted Monk has a fairly equal balance, but the elements aren’t as seamlessly integrated as they are in his later films. That is to be expected, of course; his instincts would sharpen and mature over time, but his talent and wit are on full display here in his debut. The gap between lighthearted fun and rough rape scenes — the film was retroactively given a Category III rating — is probably too large for most Western viewers, but if you’re willing to go for the ride, it does deliver well on all fronts.

As a director, Sammo’s films generally follow a framework of moderate action in the beginning, a lull during the mid-section where the drama intensifies, and then an action finale that is an all-out assault of action brilliance. The Iron-Fisted Monk is no different, and it delivers fantastic action rivaling just about everything else that came out at this time in Hong Kong. There’s a reason this film was a huge hit, reaching #6 at the year’s local box office, and it’s because Sammo’s choreography cooks. Right from the beginning, the fights are top-notch work that are nearly up to par with Lau Kar-Leung’s transcendent choreography. In the finale, though, Sammo goes so hard that he quite possibly delivers the best choreography that 1977 has to offer. I’d have to watch the fights back-to-back with some other great fights to decide, but regardless of ranking the work here is nothing short of amazing. That being said, I would say that it’s all a little too bland to be memorable and stand out from the pack. This is really the only thing holding the fights back, though, otherwise these are some of the best fights of 1977. The choreography marries the playfulness of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master with the staunch precision of Lau Kar-Leung’s best work, all about five months before the first of those films was released. As I mentioned before, though, I don’t think the fights will play as well to someone watching it randomly, because it really feels like a lesser version of later greats without the context.

The Iron-Fisted Monk is a great debut from one of my favorite Hong Kong directors. Seeing it in context with its contemporaries helped me to appreciate it much more, and I hope you like it, too!

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Pao Hsueh-Li’s The Battle Wizard! With a title like that it has to be great, right? See ya then!