|Plot Outline: After a Japanese team of ninjas break into a Chinese monastery in order to find a set of secret documents, Ching Wan (Damian Lau) is given permission by the monks to fight them off with his supreme kung fu, but not before the ninjas unleash plenty of fury and eventually hide the documents in the sand for later. The Chinese sense trouble, and the Japanese are expecting some, so mutually the decision is made that the only way to settle things is through a the ancient tradition of a Duel to the Death. The Chinese don’t have to look far when choose their greatest fighter, Ching Wan, and the Japanese take a look to the honorable and distinguished swordsman Hashimoto (Norman Chu). The two travel across country to meet up at the tournament grounds, but along the way traps are set by the Japanese government unbeknownst to Hashimoto himself. Eventually the two will meet, but under what circumstances with the evil Kenji (Eddy Ko) spying on behalf of the Japanese? And just what is up with the secret documents and their importance? All shall be revealed if you just watch the movie!|
Let’s just make something clear. Any time a Kung Fu film has either A) Ninjas, B) Ninjas jumping on rooftops in slow motion or C) A title that has ‘die’, ‘death’ or ‘kill’ in the title, that film is certainly worth picking up. Not because it’s guaranteed to be good, only a fool would believe that, but because it’s bound to be interesting. As big a cliché as it is to find a martial arts film with either of those three things, my library of said films is sparse to say the least. With Duel to the Death we the audience are presented with all three attributes, but it’s a film so characteristically different than what you might expect that if you go in with the wrong expectations there’s no way you’ll ever get into the film. Duel is definitely a campy and bizarre film, but just because it has an outrageous sequence here or there, that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t take itself seriously, or even strive to create true art. It’s a movie with a lot on it’s mind. There are quite a few scenes that deal specifically with questions of honor, loyalty and ultimately friendship. Yeah, sure, not exactly new themes to be tackling but the way in which these things are dealt with head on is absolutely refreshing. The structure of the film is almost a completely straight line, with each character taking on their specific duties just in order to deal with the questions posed for our dueling heroes. Which brings me to another thing I found surprising about the film, the fact that the film is based solely around one duel that is guaranteed to happen. Normally you would expect the fighting to take center course leading up to this battle, but it’s really more about the emotional state it puts each fighter in and how they choose to deal with it. It’s an uncommon approach to this type of film, normally you would expect the journey and adventure to start first and lead to someone propositioning the eventual Duel, but here we know straight off the bat just what our hero(s) are to do. The way the adventure starts out in search of this duel is truly what makes the film for me, the subtle (and not so subtle) character development along the course really sets the stage. Removing a lot of the lighter touches of HK comedy and running head long into the serious drama. The comedy sometimes works and sometimes falls flat in a mud puddle, but that’s the general rule with films like this that try and incorporate humor along the way. The eventual duel that the film is chasing for the majority of the running time isn’t really what the film should be, nor do I think anyone would after sitting through thirty minutes of it, watched for. The building up to the climax is truly what sets the film apart from any other film that dares to tackle similar subject matter. The mixing of solid drama, surreal ninja arts (but don’t let yourself get hyped for it), amazing sword choreography and plentiful bloody fights creates one of the single most unique blends of cinema I can think of that I have seen. The best way to describe the film would be that it dares to be as traditional as any film of the time (even amongst art-films), and yet completely distinguishes itself with an amazing knack for destroying all walls and genre barriers. Sort of an oxymoron, like a tradition-iconoclast.
Duel to the Death is far from being a perfect film though, this is a definite. Even though the running time in the film is relatively short, it still manages to have a few spotty moments of slow down, but that’s hardly much of a beef. The only reason not to count the film as a complete and total classic is the fact that as much as it pushes away the boundaries, it doesn’t eclipse them and only manages to deliver a wholly entertaining, and equally as artistic, sword fighting film. That’s putting things in shallow terms obviously, but if I could explain completely why it is the film never reaches beyond the four rating, that is it. As I have already made it so abundantly clear in this review already, I would like to reiterate the fact that Duel is as much a pulp-action film as it is an art-house drama. You could say that it definitely leans more towards the art-house side of things, but seeing a stack of ninjas standing on each other’s shoulders in order to make one giant ten foot tall Ninja (sort of like the Power Rangers, only without the robots) definitely gives the film that quick bang ’em up martial arts style I am alluding to. The artistic side of things should be evident from the very beginning of the film. The shots and the framing are far more cinematic than one could ever expect from a typical Kung Fu film. The cinematography is almost majestic, with the spectacular scenery and the very impressive lighting suit the film just fine. Nearly any shot where the wind is blowing on our heroes instantly becomes a classic, something about the way the wind was used in the film strikes me as oddly captivating. Ching Siu Tung and his cinematographer really blew the doors off with the imagination and visuals of the film, setting up one of the better shot martial arts films out there. The way the action is handled in the film is equally as impressive. The camera is always handled just the way it should be during the fight sequences, giving the audience all the information needed to truly appreciate what the performers are doing, and the choreography itself is pulled off beautifully. I haven’t sought out much of the sword handling Kung Fu films out there (I believe referred to as Wu Xia), but Duel to the Death seems as good a place as any to start. The choreography is blistering in speed and form, with the actors always moving with grace and agility. As is said so often, it truly is like watching a ballet pulled off to perfection. The actors doing much of this are all up the task too, not just in the physical work but also in the dramatic. Damian Lau as Ching Wan might be the best of the group, with his rather boyish looks one wouldn’t think he would make the best of ultra-heroes, but once his character is off it’s hard not to recognize him as the stoic and duty bound man of honor. He, and much of the cast, may not be called to really stretch their wings and deliver groundbreaking performances, but for a genre film Lau and his compatriots are all on equal ground. His adversary, although I consider him to be as much a ‘hero’ as Lau’s character is, played by Norman Chu is the rougher and more ambitious of the two. His sense of honor and duty are even far more deeply drawn than our other leading man. As a Japanese character in a Chinese film you have to expect some antagonism, and Duel to the Death keeps as much of that as it changes. The majority of Japanese in the film are shown to be either traitors or total swine, but the character of Hashimoto is actually shown in a rather fair light. Showing the honorable side of Bushido and the character is at all times human, which is more than you can say about some Japanese films. Just another case of the film keeping with tradition but at the same time also throwing them out the window.