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Duel to the Death
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Tsui Siu-Keung and Damian Lau in Duel to the Death.
  Year: 1983  
  Director: Ching Siu-Tung  
  Producer: Raymond Chow  
  Writer: Ching Siu-Tung, David Lai Dai-Wai, Manfred Wong
  Action: Ching Siu-Tung, Lau Chi-Ho  
  Cast: Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, Damian Lau Chung-Yun, Flora Cheung Tin-Oi, Paul Chang Chung, Eddy Ko Hung, Yeung Chak-Lam, Kwan Yung-Moon, Casanova Wong, Hon Gwok-Choi, Lau Chi-Ho, Wilson Tong Wai-Shing, Wan Faat
  The Skinny: Ching Siu-Tung makes an auspicious directorial debut with Duel to the Death, a 1983 wuxia epic widely considered to be a landmark film in the genre. Although perhaps less polished than the high-flying martial arts extravaganzas that would come almost a decade later, the film not only serves as a nice primer to the genre, but also as a fitting showcase for the emerging talent of its then first-time director, a man who would go on to helm such classic Hong Kong films as A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman II.
Review by
     Let's get this out in the open from the start: at times, Duel to the Death can be one nutty movie. It's got plenty of gratuitous violence, a fatally funny puppet show, hang gliding ninjas, massive human explosions, near full-frontal nudity, a paraplegic villain, some shockingly graphic scenes of dismemberment, and probably the funniest decapitation sequence in cinema history. At face value, one has to wonder, how is this film NOT campy crap? The answer is simple: Ching Siu-Tung.
     In his first film in the director’s chair, Ching takes a relatively straightforward story of two rival swordsmen, adds a little political intrigue, a touch of romance, a smidgen of philosophy, and a huge helping of over-the-top insanity, and somehow creates a world in which plausibility and outright absurdity can harmoniously co-exist without blowing the precariously balanced “realism” of the narrative. But just how does Ching Siu-Tung pull it off? It’s all a matter of style. In fact, the movie so beautifully captures the visual artistry and delirious thrills associated with the high-flying martial arts films of the early 1990s that one can hardly believe it was filmed nearly a decade before.
     With all this talk of aesthetics and excess, it should be noted that the film's plot is simple enough: China and Japan have been locked in mortal combat for centuries, engaging in a secret duel every ten years that involves the best swordsman from each nation. During the course of the film, we follow the two heroes chosen for the bout as they set out on a collision course with one other. Fighting on the side of the Chinese is Bo Ching-Wan (Damian Lau), a secular disciple of the Shaolin Monastery who is committed to completing his duty to his countrymen, but still harbors some doubts about the utility of such organized bloodshed. His Japanese rival, however, bears no such concerns. In sharp contrast with Ching-Wan's mild reluctance, Kada Hashimoto (Norman Tsui) eagerly awaits his chance to win glory not only for Japan, but also himself in his bid for martial arts immortality on the field of battle.
     On the way to their mutual destination, the heroes meet Sing-Lam (Flora Cheung), yet another in a long line of Chinese heroines who disguise themselves as males, but wouldn’t fool even the most intoxicated members of the audience. It turns out that Sing Lam has a connection to Holy Sword House, the location of the sword fighting Super Bowl. The first battle between China and Japan was fought there and has been held there ever since, but at a price: no one associated with Holy Sword House is allowed to participate in the duel. Here’s where the plot thickens. Sing-Lam’s father, Master Han (Paul Chan Chung) seems more than a little miffed at his family’s exclusion from the proceedings and holds an obvious grudge against the more famous Shaolin temple. And then there’s Kenji (Eddy Ko), a Japanese warrior sent to accompany Hashimoto on his journey, but seems to possess some secrets of his own. Both Master Han and Kenji are obviously up to no good, but what? To ensure a fair fight, Ching-Wan and Hashimoto wordlessly agree to flush out the conspirators, but despite their mutual respect and admiration for each other, their long-awaited duel to the death remains inevitable.
     On a purely aesthetic level, Ching Siu-Tung's first directorial outing is a triumphant success. Camera angles, setups, environments, costuming, placement of actors within the frame—all of these choices exude a professionalism and dynamism absent in the work of even his most accomplished peers. Even when there's little onscreen movement, there's a certain vitality that's present that keeps things moving along steadily.
     Although deprived of the bigger stars of the time like Gordon Liu or Ti Lung, Ching Siu-Tung gets some quality performances out of his two lead actors. As Bo Ching-Wan, Damian Lau does well in what is essentially the bland hero role, exhibiting just enough personality and nobility to make Ching-Wan an interesting character, rather than a boring stick-in-the-mud. Given more to work with character-wise than his co-star, Norman Tsui imbues Hashimoto with a noble stoicism and integrity that somehow overrides the moral transgressions his character makes late in the film. And although the outcome of certain events clearly allow Ching-Wan to edge out Hashimoto in the hero department, the film does its best to strike a balanced portrayal of both cultures. There are corrupt Chinese as well as Japanese characters, but Ching-Wan and Hashimoto are put forth—in their own ways—as paragons of heroism.
     The film concludes with an iconic, blood-drenched confrontation between the two leads that is in some ways satisfying, but in other ways problematic. Beautifully shot and with topnotch action design, the scene succeeds primarily because there's a definite sense that the characters were finally able let loose all their pent-up frustrations on each other in a gloriously gory climax. However, the duel does mildly disappoint. After all that buildup, the climactic bout feels egregiously short. One longs for just a little more sword fighting at story's end or at the very least a more definitive conclusion. So ambiguous is the ending that one could legitimately debate who actually won the duel. Perhaps in both cases it was only a flesh wound.
     Does the film have additional problems? You bet. For starters, part of the plot (semi-spoilers ahoy!) seems a bit ludicrous. If the baddies are abducting the greatest fighters in the East in order to study their styles, couldn't the abductees just refuse to share those skills with their captors? It's not as if unwilling martial artists can be studied like lab rats. And in another blow to suspending one's disbelief, there's the use of languages in the film. For commercial reasons, I'm sure, not one Japanese person speaks his native tongue in the film. In fact, all the Japanese folks communicate with each other in Cantonese, even in private when no Chinese people are around! However, if I can buy into a scene in which a fifteen-foot tall ninja divides himself into several regular sized ninjas (an actual scene in the movie!), I guess any quibbles about a lack of realism sort of get thrown out the window, don't they?
     Ultimately, I found the film to be wildly entertaining, but I wouldn't dare pretend that it would be everyone's cup of tea. Those who despise wirework in all its forms will have a tough time getting into Duel to the Death because not only does it contain the use of wires, but also because it's guilty of many of the zany excesses that go hand-in-hand with those particular kinds of "anything goes" wuxia films. Martial arts fans looking for solemnity should seek entertainment elsewhere. However, if you like movies in which swords are drawn out of their scabbards with a sharp, reverberating "SHING!" sound, then Duel to the Death is the right sword-fighting flick for you. (Calvin McMillin 2004)

The 3rd Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
Nomination - Best Editing (Cheung Yiu-Chung)
Nomination - Best Action Design (Ching Siu-Tung)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Joy Sales
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras
image courtesy of Fox Home Entertainment Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen