Director: Ching Siu Tung
Starring: Lau Chung Yan, Tsui Siu Keung, Eddie Ko
This is one of my favorite martial arts movies and maybe the definitive Chinese vs. Japanese swordplay film.
1982 marked a turning point in Hong Kong cinema where modern day action comedies were starting to become all the rage and period kung fu movies were being fazed out. Leading the way in this movement was Golden Harvest and their big name stars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Local audiences were simply tired of "old school" martial arts epics at this point (despite some great ones still being cranked out at rival Shaw Bros. studio). This film, Duel to the Death was to be yet another in the long list of period actioners. In fact, it's basic story of good Chinese vs. bad Japanese fighters is one of the oldest cliches in the genre. Feeling they had little to lose, G.H. turned the reigns over to first time director, Ching Siu Tung. Ching had acted in many a kung fu movie over the years, usually as second lead fighter or occasionally comedy relief. For his directorial debut, Ching proved to be a visionary and transformed what would have been just another kung fu flick into a wild, amazing, visual phantasmagoria. A kind of throwback to the sword films of the sixties, Duel to the Death combined the best of both those films and the empty handed fight fests that were to follow. It also threw in what was then something new to Chinese films, Japanese Ninja! In fact, this has some of the best Ninja action I've ever seen in a kung fu movie (rivaled only by the Shaws' Five Element Ninja from the same year). Highlights include ninja on kites and a giant, twenty foot ninja that (in true psychedelic fashion) breaks up into several, normal sized ones.
The story involves a fabled duel that takes place every ten years between China's and Japan's top martial artists. Word gets around that there is a kindnapping plot and it is up to the top Chinese swordsman (played by Lau Chung Yan) and Japan's number one samurai (played by Tsui Siu Keung) to get to the bottom of it.
The two lead actors generally play well off each other, but Tsui's samurai comes off as much more charismatic than his stoic, almost expressionless counterpart. Hard to tell whether this is due to the two performers themslves or merely the way the characters were drawn.
The only disappointment I felt was the lead in to the final battle. Not to give too much away, but after all they'd been through, it seemed like our two heroes had put their er, differences behind them. The way it plays out made it seem like a cheap excuse to film their ultimate one on one battle. But that's a minor quibble and the finale (filmed on and around a cliff and mountain top) is simply one of the most incredible sword duels ever committed to celluloid. It is at once, both breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly brutal and bloody. It says something that with all of the amazing moments that came before, this final one on one confrontation is still the most memorable thing to be found here.
Needless to say, Duel to the Death is a must see.
Ching Siu Ting would go on to have a long career as one of Hong Kong's most visionary directors. He teamed with Producer Tsui Hark for the even more visually arresting cult favorite, A Chinese Ghost Story.
**** / ****