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Duel To The Death
cast: Tsui Siu-keung, Damian Lau, Flora Cheung, Wilson Tong, and Casanova Wong

director: Ching Siu-tung

83 minutes (18) 1982
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Duel To The Death (aka: Xian si jue) is one of the last old school Hong Kong martial arts epics, made by Shaw Brothers at the tail end of their golden age of production. But there is no sense of a dying fall here, as the film is a fast moving, colourful and extremely enjoyable sword fighting film that, upon its release, was received to high critical acclaim in the east. Its reputation in the west is less widely established - something this anamorphic release, with supporting commentary and documentary extras should go long way to correct.

Based around a familiar rivalry between the respective martial arts systems practiced by China and Japan, Duel To The Death's plot premise is relatively simple, taking place in the during the Ming dynasty. It's a generations-old challenge between the two countries, lately revived and scheduled to take place again in a venerated venue, the Holy Sword House. Japan sends its top swordsman to compete against the representative of its ancient enemy, and this long-anticipated fight will be one to the death. As directed by Ching Siu-tung, the resulting drama, rich in historical recreation and well shot in glowing colours, is spectacular and fairly influential. Enriched by a strong touch of gore and with some inspired wirework - a technique which was to become increasingly prevalent, his work is often cited as having ushered in a new age of Chinese action dramas.

At the heart of his film is the relationship between Hashimoto, the Japanese fighter/ swordsman (Norman Tsui-Keung) primed for the betterment of his lord and country and the young Chinese master, the 'Lord of the Sword' Po Ching-wan (Damien Lau). A subplot focuses on attempts to wreck the fair fight as planned, notably the employment of ninjas to steal martial secrets and abduct leading Chinese martial artists. But these fearsome and persistent ninjas aren't ordinary fighters. They attack while masked, or naked or giant sized; they explode while hugging their foes, fire rockets, drop down to attack from broad battle kites, bounce off trees, as well as flash disconcertingly from visible to the invisible. None of their tricks really distract from the increasing respect between Po Ching-wan and Hashimoto in the meantime, although Po also grows emotionally attached to a female martial fighter Sui Man (Flora Cheung) whose duplicitous father is the Lord of Holy Sword House. The relationship between the two contestants gradually grows more complex but Hashimoto, who eventually has to face the claims of competing loyalties (orders from the Shogun and his own sense of honour) has the most complicated set of decisions to make and his final actions, which attempt to reconcile two irreconcilable strands of tension, provide the most arresting moments in the film.

Ching Siu-tung's most celebrated film in the west is A Chinese Ghost Story (aka: Sinnui Yauman), although most recently he was action choreographer on House Of Flying Daggers (aka: Shi mian mai fu). As has been noticed by others, one of his trademark strengths is to tell a traditional story well, but in a fantasy setting breaking free from the conventions of social realism (a non-naturalistic style which divides those audiences who love and who loathe so-called 'wire fu'). Duel To The Death, his debut feature, already shows this predilection. Another characteristic is his use of multiple setups to film action stunts, before editing the fragments into a whole martial play, a way of working which has also become more current. There's plenty of opportunity to show off moves like this between participants in a swordplay movie frequently contrasting and comparing the martial techniques of two proud societies and their representatives.

Thus Ching Siu-tung's fight choreography includes the varying fighting styles of Japanese samurai (and Ninjitsu) techniques, as well as the Shaolin techniques and swordplay. Those familiar with spaghetti westerns may also find some echoes in his work here, especially when the director films his heroes progressing against barren landscapes towards the start of the film to music which sounds (to these ears at least) vaguely south of the border. He's also not reluctant to add some bizarre touches of his own, such as the slicing into two halves of an evil ninja as required, or the inclusion of an exploding head as part of a climatic encounter. To be honest, once established, the narrative is not that engaging, apart from the increasing suspense as the two young champions look set to face off each other in the deciding contest - which, when it finally occurs, is filmed in the dramatic and expressionistic setting of a rocky coastline. Perhaps he is less successful in suggesting any burgeoning romance between Sui Man and the Chinese fighter but, given the main focus of the narrative, this is not a distraction.

Hong Kong Legends' new 'region 2' release is a great improvement on the previous all-regions disc. The picture is more defined and the issue also boasts a detailed and informed commentary from Bey Logan who, these days, seems Asian action cinema's omnipresent narrator. He puts the film and Ching Siu-tung's achievement firmly into their historical context, while pointing up those elements of the film that make it so noteworthy today. Alongside this contribution there are a number of supporting special features, including interviews with a slightly self-deprecating Flora Cheung and Tsui Keung. The popular actor has some interesting remarks to make about the use of trampolines in action sequences, especially when filmed close to rocky precipices, as well as giving an account of the Shaw Brothers' training programme for aspiring actors years back. There's also a short piece revealing the secrets of 'wire fu', but one feels that this is rather padded and wishes that the director had made a contribution to complete the package. There's optional audio both in English and Cantonese (a brief listen to the dubbing soon sends one scurrying back to the original mix) and, all in all, this can be thoroughly recommended as an excellent film, which still holds up well today.
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