“Duel to the Death” is another Hong Kong classic which has been remastered and re-released by Joy Sales, complete with extras including newly edited trailers and interviews. The original film was one of the last of the great Shaw Brothers style martial arts epics, and came out back in 1982, marking the debut of Ching Siu Tung, who went on to direct “A Chinese Ghost Story” for producer Tsui Hark. “Duel to the Death” has long been regarded as a classic of its kind amongst fans, and is an archetypal example of the genre, complete with battling Shaolin monks, hordes of devious ninjas and a plot packed with righteous heroes, devious villains and dastardly betrayals, all wrapped up with a dizzying array of over the top fight scenes.
The film focuses on the latest in a series of secret duels between China and Japan that are fought by the two countries’ top fighters, in this case Bo Ching Wan (Damian Lau, later in the likes of “Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain”) and Kada Hashimoto (Norman Tsui, previously in classics such as “Flying Guillotine” and who went on to star in the immortal “36th Chamber of Shaolin”). As the fight draws near, it becomes clear that there is some skulduggery lurking behind the scenes, and the two men very slowly realise that far more may be at stake.
The plot itself is basically generic stuff, though is pleasingly familiar and contains all the themes which fans know and love, presented in a cavalier manner which neatly sidesteps the need for too much logic. There is heroic posturing a-plenty, coupled with some philosophical musings on the nature of the warrior’s life and the value of honour. Needless to say, these are complemented by a good number of slapstick comedy scenes and the usual gimmick of having a character who is quite blatantly female (played by actress Flora Cheung), despite half the cast determinedly referring to her as a young man.
The Japanese villains are suitably underhanded, though it has to be said that their schemes only work due to the fact that neither of the two protagonists are the sharpest of swords. Still, all of this makes for perfect entertainment in the time honoured form, and although the ending itself is never in much doubt, the near-hysteria of the proceedings means that there are at least a few surprises along the way.
The action scenes come thick and fast, and are impressively imaginative and frequently bloody, enough so to remain thrilling after more than two decades and putting many po-faced modern martial arts films to shame. Some of those involving the ninjas are wonderfully crazed, with plenty of bizarre magic powers on show, including one standout scene in which they attack en masse riding a fleet of kites, and another in which for no discernable reason they combine to form a giant.
Ching Siu Tung’s direction and choreography are excellent, giving a sense of fluidity lacking in similar films, and he wisely never allows things to slow down. Indeed, there is never a dull moment, which is probably the film’s greatest strength, and it manages to include more action and energy than in a dozen lesser efforts put together. Like the director’s later works, the film is surprisingly beautiful, with lavish sets and great use of the surrounding countryside, making for atmospheric viewing, as well as a number of breathtaking moments amongst the bloodshed.
Ching has a real eye for detail, giving the film a look which, if not actually historically accurate, is certainly evocative. The new DVD release makes the most of this, coming with vastly improved picture and sound quality that give the film a new lease of life, a fact which marks it as a worthy purchase not only for genre fans, but for anyone looking for a wild slice of typical Hong Kong martial arts mayhem.
Siu-Tung Ching (director)
CAST: Norman Chu …. Hashimoto
Damian Lau …. Ching Wan
Flora Cheung …. Sheng Nan
Eddy Ko …. Kenji