When Quentin Tarantino made “Kill Bill,” it was said he based his story on every old Hong Kong martial-arts movie he could lay his eyes on. If so, then 1982’s “Duel to the Death” must have been one of the single biggest influences on the American filmmaker. It’s got everything from kung fu to sword fights to severed limbs to exploding body parts. It’s not a great movie insofar as great moviemaking is concerned, but it’s an awfully good film of its kind, a sort of godfather of the old-school, ultraviolent Hong Kong action flick and one of the best of its breed.
Filmmaker Ching Siu Tun, who has worked as an action choreographer and director with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and other Hong Kong superstars, combines traditional elements of Chinese folklore with modern high-wire acrobatics, flash edits, stop-motion, and plenty of style and energy to create a far more rewarding fantasy epic than one might expect. While none of it is even vaguely related to reality, it’s not meant to be, but, instead, works as a part of Chinese mythology. As such, with its fast pace, appealing characters, and surprisingly involving story line, it is quite entertaining.
The setting is somewhere in China’s distant past, where anything and everything can happen. The plot involves an ancient duel to the death fought each year between the two best combatants from China and Japan. Naturally, this rivalry highlights the ancestral hostility between the countries, and because the movie was made in China it emphasizes the strength and goodness of the Chinese at the expense of the Japanese. To its credit, however, the movie does present the people of both nations as making mistakes in value and judgment.
Damian Lau plays the hero, Li Ching Wan, the handsome young Chinese kung-fu swordsman who will represent China in the final duel. He is known, rather melodramatically, as “the Lord of the Sword.” Representing Japan is Tsui Siu Keung as Hashimoto Kada, the best Samurai fighter in Japan. Hashimoto lives by the Ninja code: “Fight to win. Never be afraid. Be ruthless. Be merciless. Be resourceful. Kill anyone who gets in your way. Your own brother. Even God Himself. Show no pity. The strong will survive. The weak deserve death…. Look death in the face and show no fear. Being a warrior means to fight until death. It is the ultimate honor.”
To make sure with whom the viewer’s loyalties should lie, the Chinese Li Ching wears white and the Japanese Hashimoto wears black. Needless to say, it is Hashimoto who is the more interesting and complex character, Li Ching being rather a colorless do-gooder. Also along the way we meet Shan (Flora Cheung), a beautiful young warrior disguised, as Chinese tradition would have it, as a young man because women were not supposed to engage in fighting.
Interwoven into this primary story is a subplot involving a band of mysterious rogue Ninjas who are apparently trying to sabotage the duel. They show up in the movie’s first sequence attacking a Shaolin monastery to steal a scroll, and they reappear throughout the film, initially making us wonder if their entrances aren’t for the sole purpose of arbitrary, gratuitous violence but in the end serving to make sense of everything. The main thing to remember about the film is that there’s more to be seen in it than meets the eye. Trust no one, for nothing is as it appears.
The story moves along at a healthy clip, with plenty of action at every turn and some of the most attractive scenery you’ll see outside of “The Lord of the Rings.” Director Ching Siu Tun includes a bit of Sergio Leone in as many frames as possible, Leone having gotten his inspiration from old Samurai movies, which in turn got their inspiration from old Hollywood Westerns. I’m getting dizzy.
Anyway, we get plenty of vacant, cool-eyed stares, too, plenty of typically macho posing, and a ton of impossible deeds. It’s the latter that give the film its major delights, the fight scenes graceful and poetic, the high-wire jumping and flying agreeably defying gravity. People not only leap fifty feet in the air and turn somersaults along the way, they literally appear and disappear at will, move at lightning speed, and turn into other people! Remember, it’s a fantasy.
Of course, this is not to say “Duel to the Death” will be to everyone’s taste. It still relies a good deal on the old-fashioned conventions of Samurai films, the bloody encounters, the endless posturing, the quiet stares, and the dramatic underscores of music. Moreover, the climactic duel seems pointless by the time it comes, except to satisfy the lust of an audience who would be disappointed without it. But if you can get past these sometimes minor annoyances, you’ll find a film of rare beauty and involvement. For its choreography and cinematography alone, the disc is worth its ultralow asking price. It’s rated R for violence and a moment of female Ninja nudity.
I don’t know how they do it, but Fox’s authoring facility manages to produce the most consistently good transfers in the business. This one is no exception, a beautifully rendered 2.09:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen picture in generally bright, vivid colors. There is some dullness to the image quality at times, too, and some grain, especially right at the beginning of the film, but it’s largely inconsequential. The hues are natural, object delineation is excellent, color bleed-through is minimal, and moiré effects are few. It’s a nice mastering job on a film over two decades old.
The film’s original two-channel stereo is offered in DTS Stereo or remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, which is how I listened to it. The DD 5.1 mix is fairly effective, with any number of surround sounds appearing quite convincing and well separated, especially environmental noises. The frequency range is not too wide, however, nor are the dynamics particularly aggressive. What’s more, the overall impression while listening to parts of the English dub is one of hollowness, another reason to listen to the Chinese voice track and read the English subtitles. Not only is it better to hear the actors’ own voice inflections, whether you understand what they’re saying or not, the original soundtrack is more natural. Besides, the dubbing is often strident and silly.
A budget price for this disc doesn’t buy you much in the way of extras. In fact, it buys you hardly anything at all. You get a main menu; two trailers, an old one and a newer one; twenty animated scene selections; English and Chinese (Cantonese) spoken languages; and English subtitles. Period.
There’s a lot in “Duel to the Death” that will strike the casual viewer as commonplace, redundant, stereotyped, or clichéd, but those elements are a part of the film’s charm. This is a traditional Hong Kong action movie, done up in a traditional style of filmmaking that was beginning to vanish until director Ching Siu Tun came along to revitalize it. More recent films like Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are more visually and stylistically compelling, but it is to films like “Duel to the Death” that they owe their allegiance. I went into the film convinced it was going to be just another bloody, mindless muddle. I came away not only impressed, but more respectful of the genre.