Today I watched Siu-Tung Ching’s Duel to the Death (1983)
In the early Eighties the sword and sorcery style of martial arts films was on its way out, soon to be replaced by films set in the modern day that recast the martial arts masters as police, criminals, and fighters of the modern world. But before that caught on the studios were trying desperately to maintain the Wuxia genre that had been their bread and butter for so long, they incorporated more special effects, more fantastical fighting styles, and more absurdly fantastical stories. Duel to the Death falls in this awkward period of transition. Its story revolves around a series of duels between the greatest swordsman of China and Japan and fills the plot with tacky ninja shenanigans and ridiculous kung-fu shenanigans.
Those tacky ninja shenanigans are why you watch this movie though, they are completely ridiculous. But this absurdity leads to a tonne of creativity when it comes to fight choreography. Enemies pop out of the ground and fly through the sky and this leads to a sense of three dimensions in the combat as it is not restricted to the flat plane of the ground. These fight scenes also unfold with incredible speed, the athletic ability of the performers is not covered up by the extensive wirework but it enhanced by it.
Those lead performers also bring some very solid acting performances to the proceedings. Damien Lau and Norman Chu play the two leads and have a lot of charisma and chemistry. This film does a good job at showing their conflicting philosophies, fleshing them out and not picking sides. While the Chinese champion is sedentary, peaceful, and contemplative, the Japanese master is aggressive, honourable, and imperious. It shows a certain maturity in story telling often lacking in Wuxia films that they actually show the Samurai as a heroic figure when it would be very easy to make him a boring villain.
Duel to the Death is a true camp classic but it tempers its ridiculousness with solid performances and mature story telling. It is a fast and action packed flick with slick pacing that moves from action set-piece to action set-piece with a great flow. The actors seem wonderfully unaware of the absurdity of the plot and as such they deliver truly solid and serious performances that instead of feeling out of place, elevate the work as a whole. This is a classic for anyone who enjoys camp of the Chinese flavour, ninja madness, or just a solid fantasy action flick. 5/5