Kicking off opening night of Subway Cinema's annual Old School Kung Fu Fest series at Anthology Film Archives, Ching Siu-tung’s 1983 directorial debut Duel to the Death neatly mixes fast-paced wuxia action with fatalist reflection on the warrior life. Once every ten years, the greatest swordsman from China and Japan meet at Holy Sword House to duel (to the death, obviously) for national honor, but the plot takes a harsh turn when the warriors discover an inside job to rig the outcome.
Realizing they’re mere pawns in a larger scheme throws the young men’s loyalties into conflict and threatens to render their lives meaningless. Merciless samurai Hashimoto clings to his code; Shaolin-trained ‘Lord of the Sword’ Ching-Wan recognizes its ultimate futility. The duel remains a fatal inevitability in spite of outside machinations because they are warriors, and warriors duel. “If you’re not good, you’ll die on the battlefield. But if you’re good, you’ll spend your life fighting,” says Ching-Wan. “Either way, we die in the end.” All they can promise is to honor each other with a fair fight.
Choreography is intimately bound to the characters’ emotions—a triple sword fight whipping back and forth is the torn loyalty of Holy Sword House’s daughter, deftly stopping her father killing Ching-Wan and dishonoring China, yet slashing fiercely at Ching-Wan out of filial duty. Considering Ching Siu-tung is as famous for fight coordination (House of Flying Daggers, Shaolin Soccer) as he is direction (A Chinese Ghost Story), the surprise isn’t the film’s visual dynamism, but the meditative quiet surrounding it.
Alternating frenzied action with slow shots framing (sometimes dwarfing) characters against indifferent nature, Siu-tung emphasizes the insignificance and impermanence of their lives. Standing in a forest cemetery of past fighters, Ching-Wan notes “nobody wins here, only death.” Numerous reviews complain the final, brutal duel is amazing in its breathtaking oceanside location but anticlimactic in its ending, completely missing the point. There is no winning or losing for either warrior anymore, only the weariness of more battle or the sweet release of honorable death. And yet they get neither: the film leaves us to meditate and reflect just as they do.
I’ve seriously buried the lede on Duel To the Death’s sweet, sweet ninja action. (After all, the theme of this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest is Enter the Ninja!) Ninja are the glittering thread woven through this existential tale, their every appearance an absolute delight, whether a giant shape-shifting ninja taking on a Shaolin master, kite-bound ninja dropping from the sky, or the many, many surprise explosion ninja. To say more would ruin the very stealth essence that is the ninja.