Friday, December 16, 2011

Death Duel of Kung Fu

Director: Chang Chu
Starring: Wang Tao, John Liu, Han Ying

Another one of those pleasant surprises that I stumbled upon back in the mid 80s courtesy of Ocean Shores, at the time one of the best companies releasing Kung Fu movies on vhs here in the U.S. This 1979 period piece teams Wong Tao and John Liu who previously duetted in 1976's  The Secret Rivals. Like that groundbreaker, Death Duel of Kung Fu was shot in South Korea on a similarly low budget, but the results here are actually more impressive than it's better known predecessor.

Set during the Qing Dynasty, our film begins with a strong sequence showing the beheading of the Qing Field Marshall at the hands of Ming Patriot, Shung Ching Kwei (Wong Tao). Now on the lamb, Shun finds himself hunted by Lord To Ko Lan (Han Ying). He also finds his trail dogged by mysterious rogue, Sun Sen (John Liu) as well as a mysterious Japanese woman who may or may not be his ally. Finding themselves initially at odds, Shun (Southern style fighter) and Sun (Northern style) must eventually team up in order to combat To and his lethal Crane style.

I was never the biggest fan of Wong Tao (aka Don Wong) as I found him to have a rather bland screen presence. Here, his stoic image is put to good use and this is probably the best work he's done. John Liu is one of 70s Kung Fu cinema's premier leg fighters. His kicks are nothing short of amazing (as demonstrated in the egg breaking training sequence). The two actually work off each other very well as they had in Secret Rivals (here their roles seemed reversed as Wong plays the no nonsense main hero and Liu the antagonistic rouge). As the villian, Han Ying (aka Eagle Han) brings a sense of menace and authority to his role. It is a relatively low key performance, but an effective one.

Written by Shaw Bros. vet, I Kuang and directed with an assured flair by Chang Chi, Death Duel of Kung Fu charges along at a swift, economic pace while featuring some fine martial arts battles (courtesy of choreographers Chien Yuet San and Mong Hoi), making this one of the stronger Independently made period pieces of the 70s. Worth seeking out.

                                                               *** / ****

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