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Duel to the Death

To paraphrase Prince, "Ladies and Gentleman, the dream we all dream of: China versus Japan in the World Series of Kung-Fu." To the death, of course. Representing these two perpetual enemies in the sword-clangin' melee Duel to the Death (1982) are, respectively, the amiable Ching Wan (Damian Lau) and the stern Hashimoto (Tsui Siu Keung, aka Norman Chu). Their battle is part of a traditional event that takes place every ten years, but the honor of it is being challenged by a gang of pesky ninjas who have stolen the secret of a sacred Shaolin scroll and intend to use it in a most untoward manner: namely, to kick start a conflict with the Chinese. The movie makes an admirable attempt to juxtapose the conflicting philosophies of the two nations, but any thematic complexity is hopelessly undermined by such goofy sights as dozens of flying ninjas strapped to rectangular parachutes, as well as annoyingly undercranked action. Duel to the Death was the directorial debut of Ching Siu Tung, the visionary filmmaker who would later give us the vastly entertaining Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman series. With this picture, he was still feeling his way, though his early use of wire-fu is more accomplished than one might expect. The penultimate battle sequence in the forest that finds ninjas hopping from tree to tree, assaulting Lau with a shower of throwing stars that he miraculously avoids (expect an extreme echo of this in Zhang Yimou's forthcoming House of Flying Daggers) is nicely staged, if a little rough in the editing. Meanwhile, the final duel more or less delivers on its promise, especially in terms of bloodletting — these evenly matched combatants garishly slice each other to ribbons in the best cinematic sword-fighting tradition. If only the rest of the film had been this much fun. Unfortunately, Tung makes the mistake of taking his political allegory way too seriously, resulting in drawn out discussions that seem unduly serious in a picture that prominently features exploding ninjas. There is a way to wed extreme action and thematic thoughtfulness (Korean filmmaker Chan Wook-Park is the best example of this), but Tung's ambitions far exceed his grasp, at least at this early point in his career. It's still worth watching for devoted fans of the genre — after all, it's got flying, exploding, quickly burrowing ninjas — but, for the most part, it's more laughable than exciting. Fox presents Duel to the Death in a nice anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include the original theatrical trailer, as well as a new trailer cut for the DVD release. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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