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Review: Duel to the Death

I’m a huge fan of martial arts movies that feature both Chinese and Japanese combatants: Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Sword of the Stranger, and especially Lau Kar-leung’s Heroes of the East. So when I stumbled upon an article about a kung fu film called Duel to the Death, which revolves around—surprise, surprise—a duel between the best swordsman from each country, I immediately knew I had to own it. Fortunately, some random vendor on Amazon had a brand new copy of the out-of-print DVD on offer.

From the opening melee between a band of shinobi thieves and a small army of Shaolin monks to the absurdly brutal climactic clash, Duel to the Death is a delightfully, unabashedly old-school wuxia flick, replete with ludicrous ninja magic, gravity-defying acrobatics, and less-than-convincing disguises (you’d be forgiven for failing to realize that the leading lady is supposed to be masquerading as a young boy). Beneath these cheesier, surface-level pleasures, however, lies a genuinely compelling examination of the self-destructive nature of blind patriotism. The refreshingly sympathetic depiction of the Japanese antagonist is particularly striking. Like many of the most iconic characters in samurai cinema, he finds himself torn between his loyalty to a corrupt master and his own personal code of honor. Under a different set of circumstances, he might have been the hero of the story. Sadly, despite his clear disdain for his conniving, duplicitous “allies”, he refuses to relinquish his sense of national pride, propelling the narrative towards its tragic, blood-soaked conclusion.

This element of moral complexity elevates Duel to the Death. Like Heroes of the East and Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, it argues that we will only achieve true peace when we set aside our differences and strive to better understand one another—a message that, in my opinion, always remains relevant.

[Originally written August 6, 2017.]

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