Ace detective Lu Xiaofeng (Liu Yung) and blind-but-intuitive pal Hua Manlou (Sun Chien) are perplexed why Ye Gucheng (Jason Pai Piao), a swordsman both hold in high esteem, has challenged righteous hero Shimen Chuishiue (Yueh Hua) to a duel to the death, to be staged at the Imperial court. When questioned why he wants Shimen Chuishiue dead, Ye Gucheng proves frustratingly evasive. Torn between his respect for both heroes, Lu resolves to crack this mystery and uncovers an elaborate conspiracy involving imposters, scheming lamas, and ninja assassins lurking around every corner.
The Duel of the Century marked the second Shaw Brothers film where Liu Yung played super-sleuth Lu Xiaofeng for director Chu Yuan, following the equally lacklustre Clan of Amazons (1978). This time, not only does Yung sport the pencil-thin moustache, absent from the last film, that earned this literary hero the nickname “Four Eye-Browed Swordsman”, but co-star Yueh Hua vacates the role of blind swordsman Hua Manlou to essay the intrepid Shimen Chuishiue. Duel of the Century was later remade by director Andrew Lau and writer-producer Wong Jing as effects-laden extravaganza The Duel (2000), marking a rare instance where a bombastic remake outdoes its source.
By the early Eighties, Chu Yuan’s wu xia (swordplay) mysteries had grown overfamiliar. He later revised his formula with doses of comedy and surreal detours into psychedelic science fiction - as was the case with Descendant of the Sun (1983), The Hidden Power of Dragon Sabre (1984) and The Enchantress (1984) - but here falls back on rehashing stale clichés. The dense, though not impenetrable plot is overeliant on scenes of lengthy exposition to decipher its Chinese puzzlebox-like structure of schemes-within-schemes, villains-within-villains. Of course, die-hard fans (who, to be honest, include this writer) will find this another agreeable journey into Chu Yuan-land with secret cults, philosophical musings, improbable plot twists and sumptuous sets bathed in candy-coloured lighting. The gravity defying wire-fu proves arresting as every along with the outrageous super-weapons that include a gang of ninjas wielding flame-shooting candles, mad monks spinning cymbals like lethal flying frisbees, and death-by-exploding Chinese takeaway. Surely a cinematic first!
While the film teams prolific Shaw swordplay stalwart Jason Pai Piao with one of the studio’s most versatile leading men: Yueh Hua, the man to watch is Liu Yung. Yung tries something a little different with his light-hearted, mischievous take on the stock Chu Yuan detective hero. Although every bit the martial arts master, Lu Xiaofeng is a hero increasingly baffled by the labyrinthine mystery in which he is enmeshed, quite unlike the usual unflappably intrepid protagonists essayed by Yuan’s regular lead: Ti Lung. But Yuan makes too little of Lu’s moral dilemma as the plot grinds along laboriously. There is a surprising interlude in a gay bar, something one might not expect to see in a period martial arts film. Chu Yuan has been feted for the sympathetic depictions of homosexuality and transsexuals in his films, notably Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), but the comedic sequence here falls on crude caricatures. Rather more amusing is the violent sword battle that develops into a game of one- upmanship between Lu Xiaofeng and Shimen Chuishiue as they compete to see who racks up the highest bodycount.