Grim swordsman Yen Shih-San (Ling Yun) aims to be number one in the Martial World. To that end he agrees to eliminate Third Master, supposedly the finest swordsman in the world, on the orders of the evil Mu-Yung clan led by sultry siren Mu-Yung Chiu-Ti (Chen Ping). But when Yen Shih-San reaches the fabled Supreme Sword Mansion, he discovers Third Master has died from natural causes.
Meanwhile, a starving beggar named Ah Chi (Derek Yee) earns some food performing odd jobs at a high class brothel. Other courtesans tease him about his ragged clothes, but the sweet and lovely Hsiao Li (Candice Yu) leaps to his defence. After Ah Chi has his arms slashed protecting Hsiao Li from an abusive client, kindly street vendor Miao Tzu (Ku Feng) and his dear old mum give him shelter and heal his wounds. He soon discovers they are none other than Hsiao Li’s family, who are unaware she has been turning tricks to support them. Triad bully boys from the White Tiger Society try to kidnap Hsiao Li to serve as their boss’ personal plaything, killing her mum in the process, prompting Ah Chi to explode into a whirlwind of death-dealing fury. Soon his secret is out: Ah Chi is the Third Master. Now everyone wants him dead.
Not to be confused with Joseph Kuo’s 1971 chop-socky effort of the same name, Death Duel is another Shaw Brothers Gu Long adaptation from Chu Yuan, and one of his very best. Red is the predominent colour onscreen (red leaves, red lanterns, backlit mist), perhaps signifying lives steeped in bloodshed, although in Chinese culture it traditionally symbolises heroism and happiness. “It’s not easy even to be a nobody”, muses Ah Chi as the unfolding tragedy echoes themes prevalent in an array of more mainstream movies, from Cold Sweat (1971) to A History of Violence (2005) wherein heroes seeking a peaceful life are driven to kill in order to maintain their precious anonymity, even as this increases their notoriety. This sense of inescapable tragedy harks back to the classic Gregory Peck western: The Gunfighter (1950) as suddenly all sorts of wacky, would-be assassins crawl out of the woodwork itching to pit their skills against Third Master, who just wants a quiet life. Inevitably, fate does bring Ah Chi together with Yen Shih-San but in most surprising and unexpectedly poignant circumstances.
While some Chu Yuan films tend towards the esoteric, Death Duel weaves a powerful, compellingly human story, distinguished by its gut-wrenching nihilism and exhibiting real empathy for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. The film marked the screen debut of Derek Yee, who went on to headline some of the wildest martial arts fantasies produced by the Shaw Brothers studio - e.g. Buddha’s Palm (1982) - before he switched careers to serve as the writer-director of an array of groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed dramas: e.g. The Lunatics (1986), People’s Hero (1988), One Night in Mongkok (2004), Protégé (2007) and his romantic masterpiece C’est la vie, mon chéri (1994). Truth be told Derek Yee is a far better director than he was an actor, however his performance here ranks among his most impassioned and affecting. The Shaw Brothers surrounded their burgeoning matinee idol with an impressive array of special guest stars: Yueh Hua plays a duplicitious herbalist whose evil actions result in an unexpected plot twist. Lo Lieh pops up as a righteous hero who hides an enormous circular saw under his hat! An unshaven, poncho-clad Ti Lung briefly reprises his role from The Magic Blade (1976) as a master swordsman-turned-humble-woodcutter who saves Ah Chi’s life and gives him some handy advice. Most surprising of all, Derek Yee’s real-life older brother, Shaw superstar David Chiang makes an insane in-joke cameo, cast way against type as a crazed, cackling kung fu master held in a golden cage, who abruptly slaughters two thirds of the cast!