Duel to the Death Reviews
Student/Hero, as his master's blood drips from his sword: "Yes. Fight to win. Never be afraid. Be ruthless. Be merciless. Be resourceful. Kill anyone who gets in your way. Your own brother, even God Herself. Show no pity. The strong will survive. The weak deserve death. Always remember these words, and you will always succeed. Look death in the face and show no fear. For to be a warrior means to fight until death. It is the ultimate honor!"
Our attraction to a film of this genre is simple: kung fu and kitsch.
The title of Duel to the Death is an overblown stab at glory. Whether in Cantonese or English, the dialogue is often overblown gibberish. The cinematography is gloriously overblown, though the visual editing is perfect. The score and sound effects are gloriously overblown. The themes of familial loyalty & political treason are hammered into the script of an overblown melodrama. The various villains, supernatural or mere human, and their movements are often distractingly cartoonish.
So, obviously, the kitsch element of this film is off-the-charts glorious. I wouldn't change a single thing about it.
There will never be a need to apply modern filmmaking techniques to the insane awesomeness of Duel to the Death. The original story would gain nothing, even by tweaking the audiovisual experience.
Now let us examine the kung fu element of this film, and let us be mildly disappointed. It is rare to complain that a movie as violent and dramatically satisfying as Duel to the Death is lacking in onscreen kung fu action mastery. Again, the editing is sharp, the visual effects unimpeachably fun to behold, and the athletic prowess of the actors undeniable. However, the fight scenes, the actual punching & kicking and swordplay, are a little disappointing for avid fans of the genre.
The filmmakers and stuntmen do a fantastic job with the fantasy elements and with several short intervals of the violent scenes that are of course the primary draw for this film's audience. However, to put it punnily, most of the violent physical confrontations lack punch. The spatial relationship among the combatants, the camera, and the audience is a challenge for any action filmmaker to maintain without taking shortcuts. Here, however, it seems the choreographers themselves failed, and they failed to get the best effort from their martial artist-actors.
Thus, Duel to the Death could benefit immensely from the application of modern camera & wire work, even CGI, to enhance parts of the kung fu element of the film. This is what separates perfect or near-perfect kung fu films, such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, from Duel to the Death.
The main draw card of this film is the ninjas. They exist in all forms possible. Library ninjas. Giant ninjas. Flying ninjas. Naked ninjas. Kite ninjas. Exploding ninjas. It really is quite ingenious and a spectacle.
There is also a scene where the monks are having a party which is quite hilarious, elevated by their silhouettes. This scene was also preceded by perhaps the shortest characterization and subplot in the history of cinema. Within seconds of the introduction of a master, he dies in a different scene delivering a message of value to the Japanese lead.
All subplots combine and lead to a fantastic climatic battle. One that seemed promised in Kill Bill, but never eventuated. There is also a poetic edge to this battle as the sun rises ad the blood flows.
The movie so beautifully captures the visual artistry associated with the high-flying martial arts films of the early 1990's that you can hardly believe it was filmed nearly a decade before (1982). In fact, i had to check on the Internet just to make sure, twice!!
This is Ching Siu-Tung's first film as director as well. You guy who brought you Hero and House of flying Daggers.