I sometimes find it hard to describe to people the kind of films I love because my ideal is pretty much pulp but done well; genre films treated with the same creative respect as non-genre films. A picture can be well-made, intelligent and carefully crafted, yet I still need some sense of the flamboyant or the outrageous to ignite my soul. On the other hand, if a film is all trashiness and outrage, ineptly executed, it can be the most tedious, joyless experience. Balancing my love of quality cinema and the needs of a mind reared on the decade of bad taste and excess (the 1980s) is difficult, which is why films that achieve it are such rare gems. Duel To The Death (1983) hits the bullseye and the whole target explodes in a shower of mystical ninja sparks. It’s perfect.
Its success, ironically, could be because it sits in a tricky place within the history of martial arts films. The old style of lavish, period epics were on the way out, replaced in popularity by the burgeoning school of high octane modern martial arts movies led by Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen et al. Frequently, traditional martial arts films from the early 80s feel slow, dated and a little lost, but Duel To The Death seizes the best of the past and hurtles full pelt into the future. Astonishingly, a debut film for director Ching Siu Tung (who would later go on to helm the classic Chinese Ghost Story trilogy and choreograph Hero and House Of Flying Daggers), it has the flair, style and depth of a Shaws movie but with the lightning pace and insane OTT stunts that would soon become synonymous with 80s Hong Kong cinema. It also has ninjas. Lots and lots and lots of ninjas. If you’ve not seen Duel To The Death, make sure you prepare yourself, because you’re going to have multiple ninjasms.
The titular duel is one that takes place every ten years at The House Of Holy Swords pitting both China and Japan’s greatest swordsmen against one another to prove whose martial arts are superior. This year, China has picked a Shaolin scholar named Bo Ching Wan (Damian Lau). He’s also known as The Lord of Swords so you know he means business. That said, his approach is one of learning and he doesn’t believe that men should fight to the death but instead use duels to educate one another on technique, mutually improving their combat. Japan, on the other hand, has picked a Samurai known as Hashimoto (Norman Chu) who is driven entirely by victory. As he heads off to the House Of Holy Swords, he kills his own master in a fight and his master is honoured to have met a death at the hands of such a skilled swordsman since mortality revolves entirely around success and failure for these Samurai. Once they’ve lost, there’s no point in living.
When the two fighters reach The House Of Holy Swords, they settle in to the local nightlife and are shown around the eerie subterranean caves where the names of former duellists are carved into the walls. They meet the Master of the House and his beautiful daughter Sing Lam (Flora Cheung), whose own skills with a blade are formidable. It all seems pleasant enough but soon they realise something corrupt is afoot. Armies of ninjas stalk the night. Betrayals and conspiracies are afoot. Ugly politics rear their head and innocent lives are squandered. Soon Bo Ching Wan and Hashimoto – two honourable men of opposing views – must come together to fight the common enemy that threatens to destroy both of their worlds.
The atmosphere is great. The sets and lighting are beautiful and you really feel the Ming Dynasty come to life. There are some sublime moments that haunt the senses. The romance of classic Wuxia is there, certainly, perfectly pitched; poignant but never too sentimental or overpowering against the overall themes of honour and enlightenment. What’s particularly painful is how grueling the film is to the characters you come to really care about. You get a lot of philosophical meat on the bones of the fighting which makes the action all the more meaningful. There are some genuinely emotional fight scenes and at least two had me gasping aloud in horror at their outcome. Where Duel To The Death really excels though is mixing this intelligence and compassion with some of the most brainblastingly insane action you’ve ever seen. Being Wuxia, there is obviously a ton of wire-work but don’t let it put you off if you’re not a fan of the genre. This stuff is CRAZY. There might not be a lot of actual kung fu but the stunts are off the scale and the way the wires are used frequently take the breath away.
Besides this astonishing choreography (blink and you’ll miss something fantastic – there’s cool stuff happening about twice every second when the action’s at its peak) and the nutty tertiary cast – including a drunken monkey master and his talking bird called “Dragon” – you have ninjing of the absolute highest order. You might want to skip this paragraph if you plan on watching the film because seeing this stuff unfold before your disbelieving eyes is part of the fun. Within the first five minutes you’ve seen a pack of ninjas turn themselves into human fireworks but this is just a entrée. They fly through the trees. They descend from the skies en masse floating on giant kites. They make bombs. They bilocate. They trilocate. They are sliced. They are diced. They are bisected. They leap through their bisected buddies’ bodies. They combine themselves into one giant ninja (think Voltron) and then come apart again. There is even one scene where a ninja’s clothes rip off mid-fight to reveal a completely naked woman underneath, thus distracting the holy monk she’s fighting. Naked-fu is not unique but this is certainly one of the most unexpected instances of it. I think I might’ve even cheered when it happened.
In spite of this surreal outrageousness, the film somehow holds itself together and the plot (more coherent than it maybe sounds) comes to a perfect end. The final 15 minutes of this film are so tense I just sat there holding my breath for most of it, occasionally stopping to yell swear words or make wincing noises. The climactic duel of the title is remarkably brutal – a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic camerawork, crashing waves and gore-drenched ultraviolence – and it leads to a bleak, challenging end that’s only fitting to a film of this calibre. The way director Ching Siu Tung weaves all these elements together makes it feel like he’s an old hand, yet he possesses the energy of youth, combining high and low culture aspects as skillfully as he does lavish beauty and savage violence. It really has it all, does Duel To The Death. With its extreme contrasts, it keeps viewers on their toes even some thirty years later and – through the sheer pleasure of how well it works, despite having no right to – it’s easily one of the best martial arts films I’ve seen. If you’re reading this blog and interested in ninjology, it’s essential viewing.