Many of you a have probably heard the phrase "Trial of the Century" bandied about in the last few years to describe every little courtroom fracas that pops up to draw some media scrutiny. Well, the first half of this century featured a few trials that really deserved that moniker. One is the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptman, who was accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. My vote is for the so- called "Scopes Monkey Trial." For those of you who actively try to keep history in the past (and therefore out of your own heads) , this was the trial of a schoolteacher in Dayton, Tennessee who, against the law of the land, decided to teach the Theory of Evolution to his Biology class. It obviously had important moral, ethical, theological and constitutional themes. The element that set this trial apart, however, was the inclusion of two lawyers who were apparently called straight from "Central Casting", William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Bryan was a bible- thumping Southern gentleman who possessed considerable oratory skill and political power (he was Secretary of State, as well as a three- time Presidential candidate.) The liberal, agnostic, "champion of the underdog" Darrow (Who, incidentally, was the lawyer for Leopold and Loeb, the perps in the original "Crime of the Century") served as the perfect foil for Bryan’s Bible- Belt histrionics. It was a battle of will, personality and ideology that is unmatched by any thing we have seen in recent years.
What does this have to do with Kung Fu movies, you ask? Well, I have just returned from two weeks in the very town in which the original Scopes" Monkey Trial" took place. A remarkable string of coincidences have merged to form an eerie parallel to the summer of 1925. It seems one Charlie Scopes (A remarkable coincidence considering that he is in no way related to John T. Scopes, the defendant in the "Monkey Trial") has gotten into a load of hot water with the local authorities. Scopes is the proprietor of a small "Art House" Cinema and as part of his weekly schedule he shows a kung fu film on Friday nights. Everything went smoothly for years until just last month when he showed a film featuring the talents of Boston’s own Donnie Yen. The next day he was in jail. The film? Iron Monkey. The crime? "Passing off Wire- Fu as Kung- Fu." It’s a ridiculous statute on the books in Tennessee. It was tacked on the back of a drunk- driving bill by an overzealous Jackie Chan fan who just happens to be a member of their House of Representatives. Since my adoration of wuxia pian (the Chinese name for super- powered kung fu films) is well documented, I was immediately summoned to take part in his defense. Since I was the only person who showed up on his behalf I was forced into serving as his attorney. The following is my closing summation from the soon- to- be infamous Scopes "Iron Monkey" Trial.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, as you probably have guessed by now, I’m not here to wow you with my legal know- how. I’m not interested in the law. "Mr. Law", that ain’t me. What is me, or rather what I am, is a soldier in the fight to bring the truth and inherent beauty of wire- enhanced kung fu films to the forefront of the American consciousness. That’s what I’m here to do, I’ll leave the law to the leeches.
"Now, with that in mind, I want you to just listen for a while and then you go into that jury room and make your decision. I am going to ask you to forget all those times that the judge admonished me for calling witnesses "fucking idiots." I’d like you to forget my absolute lack of legal knowledge and my apparent inability to not trip the prosecutor when he walks into the courtroom. If you can just let all of that go for a while and just listen to what I have to say I think we’ll do real well here.
"Let’s get to the point then shall we?
"Ladies and Gentlemen, what do you want when you walk into a theater? Do you want to see an instructional video? Do you want to see an accurate representation of your daily lives and all the mind- numbing boredom that implies….No?… I thought so. I know what you want, you want to be entertained. Why then should we hold a different standard for Kung Fu films?!? Why should we be allowed to scoff at Jet Li‘s endless trips into the stratosphere? Why should the fighting- in- the- air- for- twenty- minutes scene in Duel to the Death be held in any lower regard than a similarly executed scene featuring non- enhanced combatants? Because it’s not real?!?! Because it’s not authentic??!!? I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but that simply doesn’t fly, if you’ll pardon the pun.
"Jackie Chan, who is held up as an icon of kung- fu truth by Wire- Fu bashers, doesn’t show you reality. I know some may find that blasphemous, the prosecutor certainly does. She holds Mr. Chan up as some virtuous herald of realism. Well, you know what I say to that? Bah! That theory holds as much weight as Creation Science. Fights don’t look like that anywhere on the planet. They never have and they never will. Fights are usually two guys who hit each other a little and then roll around on the floor until someone breaks it up. That’s reality for you… boring, lame, slow garbage!
"That’s said, we’ll now take a little trip down logic lane. I know this might be uncharted territory for some of you but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll start with this simple question. If Jackie doesn’t show reality, why should we hold people who take the show a step further in contempt? If Corey Yuen wants to have Sibelle Hu and Jet Li fight on top of the heads of a gathered crowd, as he did in Fong Sai Yuk, we shouldn’t castigate him for his straying from reality. No, we should honor him for his creative use of the human head as a walkway. If Ching Siu-Tung decides that Tsui Kam-Kong’s character in All Men are Brothers: Blood of the Leopard has kung fu so powerful that cannonballs don’t kill him and that he has the ability to explode trees on command then so be it! If the same director sees fit to make everyone in Swordsman II fly like swallows returning to Capistrano, then who are we to say that it’s wrong! I don’t know, people are seemingly more willing to accept Brigitte Lin’s Orlandoesque transformation from Male to Female in that film than they are the ability of the characters to fly, throw boulders or toss knitting needles like bullets out of a Gatling gun. That attitude, ladies and gentlemen of the jury is flat- out wrong.
"Well, all that aside, I just want you all to know that I love Jackie Chan’s films, as well as many other films that feature absolutely no enhanced kung fu whatsoever. My only wish is that you give wire- fu a chance to live the life that it is destined without the interference of the government or any other parties that would do it harm. That’s all you or I would ask from life, so it seems like we should give wire-fu that same opportunity, doesn’t it?
"I’m going to bring this to a close now. You’ve been real patient with me and I appreciate that. All I’m asking is that you give a little thought to this, remember what I’ve said and use a little common sense. Also I’d like to ask you to remember these words, "Wire- Fu is not a crime."
"I thank you."
Well, I lost. So did Darrow (I’m on even terms with the legend in Dayton. Woohoo!.) My consolation comes from the fact that I’m not a lawyer and that the case is currently under appeal. One of the judges is a big Tsui Hark fan so I think we’ve got a pretty good chance. As for me, I came home and watched Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey and The East is Red. When the final credits from The East is Red ran down the screen I knew I had done the right thing. Yes, even with a viewing of that sub- par sequel I knew, I really knew, that wire- fu was good.
This article (one of my personal favorites, btw) first appeared in Shovel Magazine #6, 1998.