MovieChat Forums > Xian si jue (1983) Discussion > MY REVIEW OF 'DUEL TO THE DEATH'!!!




(Directed by Siu-Tung Ching)

Plot: The greatest Chinese warrior and the greatest Japanese warrior must duel to the death. But will they be able to do so amidst a plot to possibly destroy them both? Also known as "Xian si jue".


"Duel to the Death" is important because it was one of the last old school kung fu films. What does it mean to be one of the last old school kung fu films? Well, it's mostly the style in terms of the battles. You know, wire works and all that. Much later on, wire works would be reintroduced to the genre in the 90's, but they were rarely used to the extent that this old kung fu films used them. It's also often referred to as one of the older Wuxia swordplay films. So besides being important, "Duel to the Death" is one of the best kung fu films out there, especially in terms of the old school films. Besides having top notch fighting, excellent locations and interesting characters, it has something important to say.

The movie starts off with a bunch of ninja attacking a Shaolin temple. The ninja are eventually overpowered and resort to kamikaze attacks to bring down their enemies. Among the Shaolin warriors in the battle is Ching Wan(Lau), your typical Chinese hero. He's kind, gentle, courageous and skilled. He has been chosen to partake in 'The duel', where China's best swordsman fights against Japan's best swordsman. On the other side, Hashimoto(Chu) has been chosen to represent Japan. Hashimoto is your typical Samurai hero. He's loyal, brave, honorable but dangerous. Basically, these two are products of their time. They respect each other, and in different circumstances could easily be the best of friends, but for the sake of old, embittered men they must fight and kill each other. They are also the only two characters in the whole movie that don't make any racist statements. They respect each-other for their abilities, which ultimately means that this will be tragedy, regardless of who wins.

But obviously the duel won't happen until the end. So until then, it becomes apparent there is a conspiracy at foot. Ninja keep attacking them, capturing other warriors who were invited to the duel as guests, and it becomes apparent that someone does not want this duel to happen. They both encounter Sheng(Cheung), a woman pretending to be a man. Seriously, how she thinks she could fool anyone is beyond me, although the only two people she's required to fool in the movie are Hashimoto and Ching Wan. They see through her disguise easily and I kept wondering if it was their perceptive skills or if her disguise was just that bad. I'm reminded of "Dance of Death" where they try to disguise Angela Mao as a man. If she's a man, then I'm gay. So really, most of the movie is them trying to figure out the conspiracy and Ching Wan trying to woo the girl.

What makes "Duel to the Death" so extraordinary to me is its statement on racial tensions and the stupidity that arises of them. The Chinese and Japanese are both capable of racism, and you see blatant racism from both sides. This leads to a destructive cycle of hatred and never turns well for either side. An important scene is during the festival, where two Japanese men are treated poorly by the Chinese. When they see a puppet show that directly insults the Japanese, they kill the puppet master. In turn, they are killed by Sheng. So what does racism bring? Death, and lots of it. There is also an amusing statement about both countries. The Chinese and Japanese almost seem petty in their insults towards one another. They feel that they have to defeat and put down the other, revealing their own insecurity about themselves.
So enter Ching Wan and Hashimoto, both good men brought into terrible circumstances. Ching Wan starts out as an optimist, a man who simply wants to test his limits without really hurting anyone. Hashimoto starts out a man who believes in the samurai code almost naively. Both believe in their countries, and are willing to fight and die for them. But in the end their countries let them down. Hashimoto realizes he's alone in his belief in the samurai code and Ching Wan realizes that the warriors road is paved with cruelty, manipulation and death. Both men are ultimately casualties of their times, destroyed by racial distrust and their countries failures to live up to their name. So an underlining sadness slowly invades the movie, from the beginning and eventually taking over for the end. Regardless of who wins the duel, we only feel a sense of loss.

Besides wonderful social subtext, the film offers some amazing locations as well. You get a feel for both the Chinese locations and the Japanese locations. The director directs as if he's directing the stage, not a movie. A lot of the lighting and staging is more appropriate for a play, but it works here. He also adds touches of atmosphere, especially when it comes to the dense fog. I also loved the score, which was both rousing and intense.

Oh, I guess I better dedicate some time to the fight scenes. After all, that's why we watch these films, right? The choreography is some of the best I've seen in a wire fu movie. For one, they are intense and bloody. Two, they are filmed so creatively that you can't help but wonder if most modern day anime was inspired by this. A lot of the ninja stuff, for example, is done using manipulative editing making the shurikens look much more effective, etc. I guess I should warn you that there are some fantasy elements, but that just adds to the more absurd atmosphere found here. I mean, a dude gets decapitated and his head impaled on a branch yet he can still talk. The fight scenes get a bit more flavor from the cultural styles as well. We get samurai battles, ninja battles, monk and priest battles, etc. Watching these styles go against each other is something else. Finally, the duel is great because it actually matches up to the hype. I hate how many movies spend so much time hyping up a certain battle only for it to disappoint. Here, Hashimoto and Ching Wan get the best fight scene in the entire movie, which says a lot. It doesn't hurt that their coastal duel is shot beautifully. Also, the final shot is full of symbolic resonance. To me, it symbols both mens feelings about the duel and could represent something fatalistic about the film.

The movies only real downside is that it clearly doesn't know what it wants to do in the middle. It feels padded with filler. Usually this works, as it gives us more action. But it also means more lame romance stuff. I don't mind romance, but I do mind when it feels tacked on. Some of the wire fu does feel over-used, but that's only because I don't care for wire fu. If you like it, then you will love this movie more than I did, which says a lot.

Damian Lau(Ching Wan) looks good in a wuxia haircut and handles the role well. Norman Chu(Hashimoto) isn't Japanese, but captures the samurai persona very well. Eddy Ko(Kenji) is too cool as the Japanese Priest. Flora Cheung(Sheng) is adequate as the female struggling in a male dominated society. The acting overall is very good and the dubbing isn't too bad either.

"Duel to the Death" is a must see for fans of kung fu films. The idea of a samurai vs Chinese warrior is intriguing in itself, but this movie executes it perfectly while having substance as well. I think people tend to underestimate martial arts films thanks to some duds, but this is a movie that deserves a lot more praise. It's one of the best of its type and I strongly recommend it.

Violence: Rated R worthy. It's pretty violent, especially near the end.
Nudity: One female ninja goes fully naked. NAKED NINJAS! It goes by quickly, but you do clearly see her topless.

Overall: "Duel to the Death" is a kung fu masterpiece. Sure, it didn't have enough material for the full running time, but it still is a must see for fans.

3.5/4 Stars

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