It seems a quiet night at this Shaolin temple, but that is because the ninjas approaching it are so silent in their footfalls, creeping stealthily up to the library and breaking in, then rifling through the shelves of books so they can pin down the scrolls they are seeking. They find them and take copies, but as they try to make good their escape, they hit a snag: all the monks in the temple have realised what they're doing, and the game is up. A mass brawl ensues, with swords drawn and clashing, before some of the ninjas guarantee their compatriots get away by grabbing some of the monks and exploding - so it is, the secrets of the martial arts are lost.
What was it about the nineteen-eighties and ninjas? At one point it seemed you could not move on the lower end of the action budget scale at least for the presence of black-pyjama-ed, masked and armed shadow people employing the finest assassin's skills known to humanity, and one reason was a film like Duel to the Death, which while a rather obscure example from the beginning of the craze, did prove that the superhuman abilities attributed to your average ninja were highly capable of enlivening any number of martial arts and action thrillers. Significantly in a Hong Kong flick, they were also Japanese, therefore a cool way of sniping at the old enemy from across the water.
Indeed, there was quite a bit of anti-Japanese sentiment in this film, and it did get a bit wearing after a while if you were not invested in it, the storyline making a collection of cultural assumptions on the viewer that did not take into account the fact that many of those checking it out would have been Westerners looking for their martial arts movie fix. The two main antagonists were Norman Tsui (playing the Japanese swordsman) and Damian Lau (as our Chinese swordsman) and yes, culturally they are pitted against one another, but from some angles you could perceive had it not been for that the two men could have been very good friends and allies, not enemies at all.
That was an irony the director Ching Siu-Tung peppered over the melodrama, seemingly entirely consciously, which made the final, long-awaited confrontation between the fighters all the more futile when it actually arrived. Before then we have understood both clans were battling for some notion of honour and integrity, but the film asks, how do you quantify such nebulous qualities when if everyone just bowed and agreed to try and get on, life would be so much easier? It was all very well upholding your belief in moral superiority, but what good could that do you if your head had been separated from the rest of your body in your attempt to demonstrate that very thing? The violence was, to be honest, probably more of a reason this became a cult movie.
Sure, there was the kung fu master who lives in the forest with an intelligent talking cockatoo capable of holding a conversation, but what about the bit where the old guy flies through the air with the greatest of ease only to smash his bollocks into a tree trunk? Or how about those ninja antics - dozens of them launching an attack by flying in the night sky on kites, or merging together into one giant ninja to menace a monk, then straight after revealing one to be a woman as all her clothes fly off as she spins through the air? That was barely the start of it, but it was that sense of fighting for nothing tangible, which could very well translate into fighting for absolutely nothing whatsoever, that would stay with the more thoughtful viewer who was not caught up in the admittedly more laughable antics elsewhere. Otherwise, Duel to the Death was wild and woolly, with a selection of well-chosen locations to mark it out as something a cut above, no pun intended. Music by Michael Lai.
[Eureka release this on Blu-ray with all these special features:
Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a new 2K restoration from the original film elements | Original Cantonese audio | Optional English dubbed audio | Optional English Subtitles, newly revised for this release (including correct translations for the Japanese characters, incorrect on all previous English language releases of the film) | Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) | An Interview with Manfred Wong - an extensive interview with the screenwriter, covering his involvement in Duel to the Death and his illustrious and varied career in the Hong Kong entertainment industry | Duel Identity - Archival interview with actor Norman Chui Siu-keung | Flora Cheung on Duel to the Death - Archival interview with actress Flora Cheung | Alternate English credits | Stills galleries including rare production stills, artwork, and ephemera | Trailers | PLUS: A LIMITED EDITION collector's booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver; and a reprint of Frank Djeng’s original liner notes from the US laserdisc release]
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.