Once every decade, a duel takes place between China and Japan’s greatest martial artists. This year, it is honourable young warriors Po Ching Wan and Hashimoto who will face one another in a fight to the death. But with a gang of deadly ninjas on the prowl, all is not as it seems.
Duel to the Death is an essential slice of martial arts action – it’s not as well remembered as some films of the era, but was important in bridging the gap between the more traditional pictures of the 1970s and the wire-heavy, fast-cut films of the following decade, a style that director Ching Siu-Tung would continue to pioneer in films like The Swordsman and A Chinese Ghost Story. There’s a bit of something for everyone here – spectacular kung fu, political intrigue, a bit of romance, plus some surprising moments of over-the-top gore.
The film’s emphasis in the first half is upon the upcoming duel, the way the Chinese and visiting Japanese act around one another and their different spiritual approaches to combat. Unsurprisingly – given the film and cast is Chinese – the Shaolin monks and their chosen representative are seen to be wise and calm and less interested in winning than conducting themselves honourably. In contrast, the Japanese samurai are boastful of their military might and only interested in victory. In fact, the duel turns out to be a smokescreen for a Japanese plot to kidnap China’s 12 greatest kung fu masters.
There are quite a few characters here, but at the centre are the two young men lined up to fight this contest. Norman Tsui, playing the Japanese entrant Hashimoto, is a charismatic leading man and although you’re clearly supposed to be rooting for his opponent, Hashimoto is a much more exciting proposition than the rather effeminate Po Ching Wan (Damian Lau). Despite the fact that within days they will be trying to kill each other, their common bond and admiration for each other’s abilities leads to an unlikely friendship. Elsewhere Flora Cheung, the beautiful but fairly bland romantic interest, continues that martial arts tradition of a girl dressing up unconvincingly as a man to gain respect for her own fighting skills.
It’s the ninja squad that really brings Duel to the Death to life, and their appearance in a scene usually indicates that some ridiculous kung fu action is about to happen. Sometimes they emerge from the ground, sometimes they take the form of a giant ninja before splitting into several warriors. One choice moment has them rip off their costumes to reveal lithe female bodies – "Buddha be praised!" exclaims their victim just before they kill him – and they have a nasty habit of exploding in the heat of battle. Ching Siu-Tung really ladles on the gore – throats are sliced and limbs are hacked off, and the film’s surreal highlight sees a severed head impaled on a branch before delivering some dialogue and messily detonating.
The film is beautifully shot, especially during the exterior scenes, with Korea doubling for China. The spectacular climatic duel takes place on a craggy rockface overlooking a harsh sea, Hashimoto and Po Ching Wan lopping chunks out each other while rocks fall all around them. Duel to the Death does share some of the flaws of the genre at this time – woefully unfunny comic relief from a crazy old man living in the woods, and a largely pointless love story – but this fast-moving, hugely enjoyable film remains a kung fu classic ripe for rediscovery.
Hong Kong director and skilled action choreographer. Started working as a fight arranger on films including Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues and directed influential kung fu flicks Duel to the Death and The Nepal Affair. 1987's A Chinese Ghost Story was a masterful slice of supernatural lunacy, and Siu-Tung went on to helm two sequels, all for producer Hark. Siu-Tung's other key films include Swordsman 1 & 2 and the stylish New Dragon Gate Inn, and as an action choreographer has worked on modern classics such as The Heroic Trio, A Better Tomorrow II, Shaolin Soccer, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Recently directed sexploiter Naked Weapon for prolific producer Wong Jing.