Duel to the Death

Reviewed by YTSL

When one thinks of Hong Kong action films, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung (the latter two as (action) directors as well as actors) appear to be the primary individuals who come into many people's minds.  With regard to visionary auteurs who work in the former British colony, Tsui Hark and Wong Kar Wai are the names with which people tend to lead off.  IMHO, Ching Siu-Tung deserves a place in both those pantheons.  After all, he not only was the action choreographer and director for such as "The Killer", "A Better Tomorrow II", "City Hunter", "Moon Warriors" and "Peking Opera Blues" but also the credited director of "A Chinese Ghost Story" I to III, "Dr  Wai in "The Scripture with No Words"", "Swordsman II", "Swordsman III:  The East is Red" and "Terracotta Warrior" (starring Zhang Yimou alongside Gong Li!) as well as the co-director of the cult favorites that are "The Heroic Trio" and "Executioners".  N.B. I don't think I can emphasize enough what an impressive -- not just extensive -- body of work this is.

DUEL TO THE DEATH was Ching Siu-Tung's first directorial effort.  To be sure, there are some parts of this 1982 effort which clearly point to its coming out -- probably even being part -- of the kungfu movie tradition which still is often identified as characteristically Hong Kong by many Western movie theatre goers (even though few, if any, kungfu films have been made for a while now from that East Asian "dream factory").  Viewed positively, I mean that this debut work by the son of a director of kungfu films contains multiple, extended, elaborate and technically correct (even if wire-enhanced) martial arts sequences.  Viewed negatively (in the eyes of those who watch movies for more than just action, however good), its plot is not all that imaginative and the standard of acting not all that commendable (Flora Cheung, whose character has a not insignificant part in (influencing) the proceedings, was the least charismatic of this movie's cast).

Up until this (re)viewer watched DUEL TO THE DEATH, it had been years -- decades even -- since I had sat through and entirely viewed an "old" (by Hong Kong standards) kungfu movie (I hardly think that the badly English dubbed atrocity called "Drunken Fist Boxing" counts; a measure of how awful it was is that the only part of its viewing experience that made me happy was that I didn't have to pay anything to do so).  Yet so much felt familiar:  Not least a tale of champion martial artists meeting to fight on behalf, and for the honor of, their respective communities -- in this case, China (and the Shaolin Temple) and Japan (plus a particular clan within it) -- in a bonafide contest (at a location known as Sword Saint village!) ending up being embroiled in a web of deception, betrayal, dishonor, death, revenge and sacrifice; hence their having to not just duel to the death once but also be involved in quite a few other skirmishes.
In action terms alone, the last fight -- which takes place at a scenic locale, on top of not completely solid cliffs which are periodically sprayed by ocean water and engulfed in mist -- is truly well done (and memorably seriously violent).  Even this non-expert viewer and practitioner of martial arts could clearly discern the different fighting styles and stances of a Japanese samurai and a Shaolin trained Chinese swordsman (Although it surely was unintentional, but no doubt because Norman Chu was very convincing as a proud Japanese lord while Damian Lau was weaker as a humanity-tinged individual trained by Buddhist monks to kill, I found myself sympathizing more with the former than the latter).
What really stands -- nay, leaps! -- out though are the amazing scenes involving ninjas which are so incredibly imaginative as to be an Eastern aesthetic equivalent of the unusual but fitting combination of extravagant rococo and strange surrealism.  Howard Hampton (whose writing on Brigitte Lin, Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung I admire so)has described Ching as possessing "sheer visual flamboyance" and lauded DUEL TO THE DEATH as "quite terrific" and being "at once detached and grandly unhinged".  To my mind, these words especially apply to the various encounters between sets of master illusionists as well as stealth fighters and individual expert martial artists travelling to Sword Saint Village to witness what they think will be an epic contest.
I sincerely hope it does not come across as patronizing when I write that I honestly didn't think that Ching Siu-Tung's vision could be so well realized a decade before the creation of such as "Swordsman II", "The East is Red" (generally uneven but often outdoing even "Swordsman II" in its amount of surprises and stunning moments), "Butterfly and Sword" and "Moon Warriors".  It surely represents a tribute to suggest that some of the magical action scenes in "Duel to the Death" bear comparison with as well as might be said to be precursors of those found in the above mentioned fantasy swordplay dramas.  Although it will not matter to some viewers, I must admit though to preferring many of the later “wuxia" works over this martial offering; in large part because they are so much less decisively heroic and harshly macho in tone along with benefiting from better actors -- albeit (often) less skilled weapon handlers -- in key roles.


My rating for this film:  7.5.