Duel to the Death
Hong Kong 1982
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung.

The ultimate Ninja action film, period. Directed by Ching Siu-Tung.

I've seen a lot of ninja movies in my time. More than I'd care to admit, really. Many of them, especially the white ninja movies of the mid-eighties variety, launched by the success of Enter the Ninja, are quite terrible. In fact, the overall opinion these days of ninja and ninja films is so low, no doubt as a result of these movies, that the mere mention of the word 'ninja' is likely to create the impression of a neon 'geek' sign which glows from the forehead. But I'm guessing most people who disparage the lowly ninja have not seen Duel to the Death, which may be the greatest, most entertaining, rip-roaring full throttle ninja movie ever made.

What's so amazing about this film, though, is how fresh it looks. The acting is good, the fights exciting, the story intelligent and involving, the special effects top-notch. It seems incredible that it was made as long ago as 1982. It looks as though it could have been made yesterday. I suppose that's one of the advantages of making a period piece as opposed to filming in 'present day' -- the costumes and hairstyles don't give away what year it really was when the film was released -- no afros or bell bottoms, here.

Duel to the Death is the story of a contest between the best swordsman of China, Ching Wen (Damien Lau), and the best swordsman of Japan, Hashimoto (Norman Chu), from the Sun Yin sect. They meet in a small town in China, and prepare for the duel. All of the best martial artists from all over China are invited to attend. But the ninja of Sun Yin have a different mission, at odds with the honorable conflict the two swordsmen have prepared for, and one by one the martial arts masters disappear, until Hashimoto must at last decide between fighting the fair and honorable fight of the duel, or following the instructions of the ninja for the greater glory of Japan.

The ninja aren't even the stars of this film -- and that's one of the reasons I think it succeeds so well. The ninja are dark and mysterious. They move quickly and know magic. The audience learns nothing of them. This is the power of the ninja -- they are not known nor understood. When the audience learns too much about the ninja, the movie fails. No one needs to see the ninja taking off his black pajamas and leading a normal life, like becoming a ninja is like becoming a costumed superhero -- jump into a phone booth, then throw a fire-bomb and disappear into the night!

The ninja attacks are the best moments in the film. If Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel ever shot a film together about ninja, this is what it would look like. They strike swiftly, silently, and in the most unusual ways imaginable. One ninja seems to become a giant. Another, female ninja, rips off all of her own clothes to distract her opponent. Other ninja swoop in on giant kites. These ninjas are hyped up on speed and tripping on LSD. And they have to be -- when one of them dares try such a mundane tactic as turning invisible or hiding in trees, he is slaughtered immediately. What kind of simple trick is that? Bah!

In a banquet scene between the duellists, a ninja attempts to drip poison down a string dangling from the ceiling, and in the attempt illustrates the unbroken cinematic conventions between ninja films. The move was first seen in the Japanese film Shinobi No Mono, then borrowed for Bond in You Only Live Twice and discovered by an international audience. Now, it is attempted again here in this Hong Kong movie, the ninja trick that traveled around the world. Of course by this time it's old hat and the duellists don't even blink an eye, one of them simply leaps up to the roof to try and catch the would be assassin, while the other casually continues to drink.

When an American scriptwriter is looking for a politically correct villain, they can always fall back on using a Nazi. Sometimes just a german accent will suffice, the shorthand version if you will, moviegoing audiences being familiar with the conventions. In Hong Kong cinema, the Japanese serve the same purpose. The Japanese invasion of China is replayed over and over again, not only in World War II movies, or movies of the Japanese occupation, but through stories of Japanese pirates of the Ming Dynasty (Ninja in the Deadly Trap, for example), invasions of Korea, or invitations to martial arts contests, as is the case here. Often, the Japanese are thoroughly demonized and the audience cheers when they are taken to task. Here, however, the story becomes more complicated than the norm, and the lead characters are motivated by deeply held beliefs, rather than any kind of evil urge. The duel itself is deconstructed, as Ching Wen wonders what it's all for, why so many have to die. He decides the purpose of the duel is to improve your skills, not to kill your opponent. Hashimoto disagrees, however. He believes that there is no honor in defeat, and the only determination of victory is complete victory, the death of your opponent. Without death, the duel loses its meaning. The duellists do much that is honorable and righteous throughout the film, though their motivations are different. They eventually cross and the Duel to the Death must at last take place, but there is no glory in victory, no honor in death, and the audience has little to cheer about.

It's a shame that director Ching Siu Tung is not better known in the west. He languishes in semi-obscurity despite the fact he directed A Chinese Ghost Story and its sequels, which are some of the best known Hong Kong films. But he directed them under producer Tsui Hark, and many film theorists award all of the inventiveness and success of those films to the creative input of Tsui Hark, rather than to the directing talent of Ching Siu Tung. But after watching Duel to the Death, it becomes clear that the Chinese Ghost Story movies were a collaboration more than anything else, and showcase the combined talent of two of the most visually exciting filmmakers working in Hong Kong. Fans of Hong Kong Cinema, or of ninja films, or even of cinema in general, should not miss out on Duel to the Death.

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.

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