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生死決 (1983)
Duel to the Death

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 11/12/2012
Summary: You can never kill all the ninjas!

Every 10 years a duel is held between the top Chinese swordsman and the top Japanese swordsman, to see which country has the best martial arts. Lord Of Swords (Damian Lau) has been training at Shaolin Temple for 10 years for his chance to fight, whilst Hashimoto (Norman Tsui) has been training for just as long in Japan. The date of the duel approaches, and both swordsmen converge on the House Of Swords, traditional location for the duel. But forces in the background on both sides have deeper ambitions, and a fair duel does not necessarily feature in their plans.

Tsui Hark's THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS and Patrick Tam's THE SWORD are usually credited as being the first of the "new wave" of martial arts films (with Johnnie To's THE ENIGMATIC CASE generally being forgotten, for some reason), but it was with Ching Siu-Tung's DUEL TO THE DEATH that there was no doubt a new wave had arrived. The introduction of more modern visual language to the martial arts film and the realisation of a highly innovative style of wire-based action choreography showed a clear departure from the films that came before it such as those produced by Shaw Brothers. There was a brief flourishing of the style in its wake, with Shaw Brothers responding with films such as HOLY FLAME OF THE MARTIAL WORLD and BASTARD SWORDSMAN, and Tsui Hark countering with the remarkable ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, but they were fighting a losing battle against audiences whose interests were shifting towards modern day action films, with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan leading the charge in that direction. There were a few more attempts at producing period films in this style in the eighties, with Ching Siu-Tung continuing to fly the flag (and much of the cast) with the A CHINESE GHOST STORY series, but it wasn't until the early 90's that audiences were really ready for period films again, and the "second new wave" of martial arts films (which was really a continuation of the first) exploded in the wake of ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA and SWORDSMAN.

Like other films of the new wave, DUEL TO THE DEATH eschews the comedy stylings that were popular at the time they were made, in favour of a quite dark and cynical tone. In early scenes the film seems to draw sides, with the Chinese martial artists and monks preaching the virtues of martial arts for health and for justice, whilst the Japanese forces believe victory is paramount and the important thing is to crush your opponent. As the film progresses, though, things become less clearly defined, and Hashimoto's observation that there are scum from both countries seems to be the only conclusion to draw.

There is a certain element of tragedy and fatalism in the story of the duel, with both characters having cause to question this goal that they have dedicated so much of their lives preparing for, as they realise that they are both being used by less principled agencies but are unsure whether they can choose a different destiny now that events have been set in motion. When you have trained to achieve the supreme level of martial arts ability, is a duel to the death the inevitable end result?

Ching Siu-Tung is credited as director on some of the finest films Hong Kong has produced (A CHINESE GHOST STORY, SWORDSMAN II), but then he has directed some utter drivel as well (WONDER SEVEN, anybody?). It has led some reviewers such as myself to speculate whether the guiding hand behind Ching Siu-Tung's classics was really producer Tsui Hark, as without somebody with a strong vision working alongside him, Ching's focus does seem to be rather scattershot, and his ability to tell a coherent story sometimes questionable. DUEL TO THE DEATH is the enigma that makes this conclusion seem much less than inevitable though, as it shows an incredible purity of focus and of vision with Tsui Hark nowhere in sight. For his first film, at least, Ching seems to have known exactly what he wanted to achieve and exactly how to deliver it.

Ching's status as a visionary action choreographer and visual stylist is never called into question, and for good reason. His distinctive visual style is not quite fully developed in DUEL TO THE DEATH, but his fantastical vision of martial arts choreography bursts into existence fully formed here. The film was a clear pioneer in the use of wirework and of rapid editing and camera movements to create a more impressionistic style of martial arts action than had been seen before (except perhaps in the films of King Hu). DUEL TO THE DEATH is packed full of innovative and truly spectacular action scenes, and has hands down the coolest ninjas ever commited to celluloid. The sneak attacks of the ninjas are fearsomely imaginative, whilst the swordplay duels are startlingly quick, clever and brutal.

Cinematography is of a very high standard throughout, with some shots that are just achingly beautiful, and an effective use of camera placement, mise-en-scene and light and shade as techniques to enhance the telling of the story and the revelation of character. It sounded a clear death knell for the Shaw Brothers studio, whose productions were becoming increasingly studio bound and lacking in relevance as Hong Kong cinema moved into the eighties and they failed to keep up. Some of Ching Siu-Tung's distinctive techniques such as heavy filters, fisheye lenses and cameras tracking along the ground are not really to be found in this film, but it is still clear that he has put a lot of thought and care into every shot, and some shots are just astonishing.

Norman Tsui gets one of his best roles in the film (he makes the interesting observation that directors always cast him as the hero in period films and the villain in modern day films, which seems to be true), and Damian Lau certainly gets his most memorable film role too (though I think he was always more of a TV star). Eddie Ko is great as the leader of the Japanese ninjas, and Flora Cheung makes a particularly strong impression as the daughter of the House Of Swords. In an interview on the DVD from Hong Kong Legends she notes that she fell in love with making period martial arts films after DUEL TO THE DEATH, but according to HKMDB it was her last movie credit?).

A strong story, good performances and striking visuals would be enough to make DUEL TO THE DEATH a solid entry in the martial arts genre, but it is the action choreography that truly elevates it to classic status. Ching Siu-Tung's whole approach to choreographing fight scenes was totally fresh, and the techniques he innovated here would (eventually) be adopted by the entire industry. There are still some scenes in DUEL TO THE DEATH that are without comparison though - the giant ninja being particularly remarkable (I still can't tell how some of the shots were done!). Whilst his timing was perhaps unfortunate, as Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan were busy innovating a completely different style of action choreography that would dominate the 1980's, he was certainly vindicated when the 1990's came around and everybody was striving to create the kind of fantastical martial arts sequences that he had pioneered here (and his services as choreographer were suddenly very much in demand).

If not for Ching Siu-Tung's unique vision I would probably never have been drawn to Hong Kong cinema, as it was the style he developed which really blew my mind and made me a devoted follower. Ching Siu-Tung, I owe you a beer :-)


Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 06/23/2010
Summary: if god stands in your way, kill him...

every ten years, a duel to the death takes place between china and japan: winning is a matter of great honour in the world of martial arts, as well as national pride being at stake. this duel is to be fought by ching 'the lord of the sword' (damian lau) and hashimoto (norman chu): two fighters who have spent their lives in schools or monasteries training and are now ready for the ultimate test of their skills. this tournament, however, is in jeopardy: a japanese monk, kenji (eddy ko), under orders from the shogun, is working on a plot that extends beyond a simple duel...

'duel to the death', ching siu-tung's 1983 directorial debut, is one of my favourite films. more prolific as a stuntman, then an action director, ching's directorial output has been lean, but with a few notable high points; the 'swordsman' trilogy and 'a chinese ghost story' being his most famous and lauded works, as a director. meanwhile, as an action director / choreographer, zhang yimou's 'hero', 'house of flying daggers' and 'curse of the golden flower', john woo's 'a better tomorrow 2' and 'the killer', as well as stephen chow's 'shaolin soccer', account for his most notable projects. i, for one, would say that his greatest work.

the narrative of 'duel to the death' gets a bit of criticism, something i would blame on a myriad of poorly subtitled releases; being on my fourth different version of the film, and a fifth set of subs, i'm pretty sure i know the film inside out and have no trouble with the perceived intricacies or lack of them. the film's main narrative thread is pulled one way, then another by a cluster of sub-plots, which work well with the, perhaps not obvious, main theme of the film. the theme being the pursuit of honour at all costs, the pain and misery which it ultimately seems to bring on all involved. from the institutionalisation of children, either in schools or monasteries, raising them to be men who know little else, but talk of pride, victory, honour and have no ambition but to gain these accolades or die trying, regardless if they are killed, have to kill, betray their family or country to do so. these themes are explored with the relationship between ching and hashimoto, this pair and their teachers / masters, and between master han (paul chang) and his daughter, sing lam (flora cheung).

as a production, 'duel to the death' seems ahead of its time; the use of location, lavish sets, a great soundtrack and some pretty lush cinematography add an epic quality to both narrative and production. still, what really makes this film so special is the action sequences. here is where it really comes into its own and shines.

in terms of wu xia, the swordplay, wire-work and aerial choreography are all top notch: this is what ching siu-tung excels at. however, the added extra here are ninjas: almost every bit of ninja mythology is exploited and the result is an absolute treat. nice reversed footage of them jumping, to the giant ninja who splits into five, ninjas getting sliced in half, moving through the air, under the ground, throwing shuriken, hanging from kites and using ninja dust; it's all here and it's all amazing. swift editing, bits of animation, some really nice camera tricks and the skills of the unknown performers in black, are all used to great effect.

the final twenty minutes of the film, which begin with hasimoto confronting the monk, kenji, followed by ching's duel with the ninjas in the forest and, ultimately, the duel between our two main characters is a non-stop exhibition of how choreography, performance, cinematography, editing and stylisation can be employed to create something spectacular.

a classic. highly recommended.

Reviewed by: Chungking_Cash
Date: 11/03/2008

You can't go wrong with a film whose script calls for a hulking 12 foot Voltron-like ninja that eventually breaks into several ninjas (one of which is a completely nude female) just prior to doing battle with an elderly Shaolin monk. Tell me there is no merit in that even when "Duel to the Death" -- a ham fisted homage to two culture's respective martial arts cinema output and action choreographer Ching Siu-tung's directorial debut -- fails on so many other levels.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/25/2003

Ching Siu-Tung may not be as well known as some of his contemporaries such as Yuen Woo-Ping, but Ching's credits (both as director and action coordinator) read like a "best of" list for Hong Kong action movies. From The Killer to Dragon Inn to the Swordsman trilogy, Ching has been one of the most active and influential directors working in Hong Kong over the last twenty years.

This film, which was Ching's first stint as a director, isn't as polished as some of his later work. To begin with, the plot is extremely simple, with a Japanese (Norman Chu) and Chinese (Damian Lau) warrior meeting up for a duel, while a wily Japanese monk (Eddy Ko Hung) plots to destroy everyone involved. The simple plot would normally be a refreshing change from the cluttered ones these types of films usually employ, but the script relies too much on cliches (some lines sound straight off a fortune cookie) and weak plot twists to keep the viewer too involved. I also didn't like the ambiguous ending. Hong Kong films (especially action ones) are not normally known for having long epilogues, but Duel to the Death ends so abruptly after the climatic duel -- literally seconds after the fatal blow -- that there felt like there was little resolution at all to the story or characters. These situations are not helped at all by the acting, which is average at best throughout the film.

But Ching Siu-Tung is not known for his great plots or stunning dialogue, he is known for producing some of the best action sequences around. The ones featured in Duel to Death are, once again, not as polished as later films, but they are still exciting and quite gory in parts. Even though the means to capture the high-flying moves are simple by today's standards (mostly undercranking and backwards filming), they captured the powers of the fighters' moves very well, especially compared to over-computerized movies like A Man Called Hero. There is a downside to the fight sequences, though. I didn't like some of the editing techniques; some moves are shot too close up and edited too fast -- so it turns out that this is not just an American quirk.

However, I really enjoyed a lot of the action stuff in Duel to the Death, most notably the various methods of ninja trickery shown, and the final confrontation between Lau and Chu, which takes place on a stunning clifftop and culminates in a virtual bloodbath as the combatants dice themselves (and the cliff) apart. These sequences make this a worthy viewing for Hong Kong action junkies, and a good introduction to the best director you may have never heard of.

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 01/07/2003
Summary: Pretty good

A sword fighting movie which i believe was ahead of its time. The plot is a little thin but there are many exciting elements to this movie. The ending while to me was a little short, was exciting to watch. The movie is more about honour than anything else.


Reviewed by: pjshimmer
Date: 12/01/2002
Summary: Came out before its time

This pioneer of HK fantasy-swordplay movies came out 10 years before "Swordsman 2" and "Butterfly Sword," although it is no surprise that Ching Siu Tung is responsible for the innovative choreography in all these films.

In terms of the intracacy of the fight scenes, storyline, score, and acting, "Duel to the Death" is indeed years ahead of the other swordplay movies from this time. Norman Chu's performance as the Japanese swordsman is the best I've seen of anyone up to this point.


Reviewed by: Trigger
Date: 05/29/2001
Summary: Worth a viewing, but not worth buying.

Duel to the Death was interesting. There were exploding ninjas and talking disembodied heads and a giant ninja that splits into many ninjas and a naked female ninja and alot of bad-mouthing between the Japanese and the Chinese - it reminded me of the old feud between Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J. However, it wasn't all that exciting. I found myself dozing off a bit during all the talking. The end battle was pretty decent. It was alot of trampoline flying through air shots which were silly and the story was pretty weak. If you haven't seen it and can find it for rent or for cheap - it's worth watching.

Seen on: DVD - Mega Star
Rating: Movie - 4.6/10

Reviewer Score: 5

Reviewed by: nomoretitanic
Date: 04/11/2001
Summary: Hoakiness Redeemed

This is one of those gritty wuxia movies that focuses on people's [twisted] passion, greed, honor, fame and all that good stuff that comes with martial arts. A lot of characters, mostly well-acted, some really well-developed but couple of them showed up to fight then mysteriously disappeared.
Good fight scenes, even though it, like all all Japanese-related movies, abuses the ninjas. The ninjas have the ability to fly and pop up randomly and weapons and stuff, yet they get chopped up just like that. They all remind me of the Power Ranger cannon fodders. Actually in many ways this reminds me of a really gritty, well-acted, gory power rangers. Of course you're gonna tell me the wuxia genre came out way before Japanese children TV shows, but watch it and watch those shows and notice all the parallels. Those pulp samurai films in the 70s have also done this movie a lot of influence.
Speaking of Japanese influence, this is one of the only Chinese martial arts movies I've seen that doesn't shout out the message "Kungfu is the best! It's better than them damned dirty Japanese martial arts." For once I felt that the Japanese culture was not exploited too too badly.
I think ultimatelt it's the pop-influences that ruin this movie from being a masterpiece. The pop-sounding score (like all other Chinese pop songs, it features the chord progression from the ever familiar Pachebelle's Canon in D) ninjas, the trampoline kungfu, the early wirefu works, the quick confusing cuts, the severed talking head, and the talking parrot. It's still a good movie, but there are a lot of things that you really have to block out when watching it.
A lot of limbs are severed in this movie, all in incredibly hoaky manners. The actors did a good job pretending that their arms aren't duct-taped so I give 'em props for the effort. Still, I liked the movie because of its high spirit and its great sword choreography, when not ruined by the seizure-inducing quick cuts that is.

Reviewed by: SBates
Date: 01/30/2001
Summary: Truly surreal, brilliant.

One of my all-time favorite movies regardless of genre. many people complain that the lot in this movie is too thin, that there is not enough story behind the duel, or the machinations of the different factions. I think this confusion is necessary; we question the merit and the motivation behind the duel, just as the main characters do. also, the fight scenes are a masterpiece of choreography, especially the much-touted final scene, where the combatants vault off there swords, rising higher and higher. Truly a masterwork. Ching Siu Tung is certainly a fine director, one of the most enigmatice filmmakers of our time.

Reviewed by: Ash
Date: 02/18/2000
Summary: A masterpiece!!

Ching Siu-Tung is the best swordplay choreographer ever!!!!
I assure you, it is that good! 10/10
Alexandre Bender

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/21/1999

I love it when people discovered this great debut by Ching Siu Tung. Everytime we showed it at comic conventions it always receive the most enthusiastic responses. Another proof of how HK martial arts movies were really superb back in the 70's and early 80's.

[Reviewed by Frank Djeng]

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

A bitter master of a martial arts clan allies himself withninja for the title of greatest fighter in China. When the ninja steal a sacred scroll of martial arts from the Shaolin Temple, the monks send their champion out to recover it. Complications arise when the hero joins forces with the master's daughter, and when a samurai challenges him to prove the superiority of Japanese swordsmanship.

[Reviewed by Eric Yin]

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

A very well done martial arts or mo-hop movie with a credible storyline. It was about the duel between a Chinese and a Japanese clan which happens every 10(?) years. The Japanese swordsman (Tsui) was sent to China to duel with the Chinese swordsman (Lau) of the Ha-Hou clan.

[Reviewed by Anonymous]