Duel to the Death

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/12/11 23:35:18

"I hope you like ninjas."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Like the title suggests, "Duel to the Death" is the martial arts film distilled down to its purest form - noble warriors walking a dangerous road so that they can square off to fight for treacherous leaders. Fortunately, director "Tony" Ching Siu-tung opted to pour his ninja-related nightmares into it, so it's a trip in more ways than one.

The plot is simplicity itself: Every ten years, Chinese and Japanese martial arts masters meet to determine whose style of combat is superior. This year, the task falls to Ching Wan (Damian Lau) for China and Hashimoto (Norman Chu) for Japan. As they make their way to the ancient battlegrounds, their paths cross, both with each other and with Sheng Nan (Flora Cheung), the daughter of the nobleman on whose grounds the contest will take place and whose family has traditionally produced China's champion. But there is skullduggery afoot - Hashimoto's handler Kenji (Eddy Ko) is in contact with the ninjas who are attacking not just Ching Wan, but many of the land's senior masters.

It's easy to dismiss the plots of movies like this as nothing but frameworks on which to hang fights, and in many ways, Ching Siu-tung doesn't even hide that here: The story more or less spells out that there will be a duel and that there are nefarious forces looking to interfere, and when ten or fifteen minutes passes without some sort of fight, you can expect some sort of crazy ninja thing to happen. And yet, dismissing it as just connective tissue would be unfair; Ching and his co-writers do manage to build up stories of intrigue and betrayal on the one side that contrasts nicely with how the various counterparts could easily be friends in other circumstances.

But these aren't other circumstances, so there's fighting, fighting, and more fighting, much of it involving ninjas. Even for something made during the ninja boom of the 1980s, there are a lot of black-clad Japanese assassins, and Ching is creative in how he deploys them: They climb walls and ceilings, jump among trees, stalk characters while dangling from kites, rip off their costumes to reveal naked girls, and apparently combine to form twelve-foot-tall superninjas. As silly as some of that sounds, Ching manages to make things like the kite sequence as foreboding as they could potentially be silly, and actually sets things up so that these guys are actually formidable rather than just being collections of limbs for Ching Wan and Hashimoto to sever. The choreography - which the director handles, along with Lau Chi-ho - is also impressive, with plenty of long takes showing the fighters in full motion, with just enough pauses and rhythm built into the fighting styles to keep the action clear without making it feel staged or artificial. Sure, plenty is absurd, but in a way that feels like the bombast of a tall tale, rather than a sudden rule-breaking detour.

Much of that is due to the work of Paul Chang, the actor playing Sheng Nan's father. He's not top-billed (he's not even enumerated in the film's IMDB listing), but he gives a gloriously outsize performance, a grand presence to contrast against the dedicated and honorable combatants, especially as the film barrels toward its finale. That's no slight against Damian Lau and Norman Chu, who actually do make Ching Wan and Hashimoto likable characters as well as fierce fighters; Lau, in particular, does a nice job with Ching Wan's growing realization of just how absurd the whole arrangement is. Flora Cheung does decent work as well, even if she is initially given a silly storyline that has her supposedly disguised as a boy, which the characters seem to ignore as soon as possible.

"Duel to the Death" is formulaic, and the formula itself is a little dated, but is still exceptionally entertaining due to the execution of Ching and his cast & crew. For a first-time director, it's actually phenomenal work, and while it's no wonder that Ching has become an in-demand action director in the thirty years since it was made (he's Zhang Yimou's go-to guy), it's a shame that his own work isn't quite so well-known.

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