Duel to the Death Review
Set during the reign of the Ming Dynasty the warrior code and martial arts schools possess a great influence with Japan and China frequently claiming superiority over one another. To determine the true power of each nation every 10 years the most skilled swordsmen and warriors are selected to face each other in combat, in a duel to the death. Those selected to represent their countries for the next duel are Hashimoto (Tsui Siu-Keung), a Japanese ninja, and Ching Wan (Damian Lau), a legendary Chinese warrior but their attempts to honour their countries are fraught with deception and trickery as factions from both sides work to fulfil a predetermined political agenda to fix the outcome. Identifying the threat and staying true to their warrior code the duo must work together to ensure their battle is a fair one.
The directorial debut of Ching Siu-Tung, Duel to the Death represents the work of a young director/action choreographer who has since gone on to direct the successful A Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman trilogies while also becoming a regular name to the international market through his work as action choreographer on Hero and House of Flying Daggers. A healthy pedigree indeed, and pleasingly his early work on this 1982 martial arts classic which borders the transition from Shaw Bros. to giant Hong Kong moguls Golden Harvest proves to contain all the hallmarks of a young director with a promising career. The brisk pace combining equal parts action and story development feature staples of the Hong Kong film market with lashings of broad comedy and a proud sense of one's national pride, while the action set-pieces are both staggeringly inventive and wonderfully executed with enough blood and dismemberment to appease the Shaw Bros. mainstays of the day. These elements show a director both developing his craft with original and borrowed concepts, and one keenly in tune with the audiences of the time ensuring - reception pending - a good chance at career progression.
The basic storyline is rather simple with the running time essentially split in two as the opening half sets up the duel while hinting at corruption in the system, before following the chosen warriors as they make their individual journeys to the hosting ground. On their way we learn about these characters with the proud Japanese warrior Hashimoto taught only to win, bringing honour to his master who drives his teachings home through a characteristically though somewhat stereotyped display of honour. Ching Wan descends from Shaolin and takes a more peaceful ethic, proud to represent his country but only using his skills to defend rather than win needlessly, a fact which contrasts nicely as we meet his rather unlikely master, carefree as he jumps around the trees like a monkey lacking its tail. When the two meet in the second half the plot thickens and conspiracy arises with their new found company in the Holy Sword House proving to be somewhat suspicious while the activity of a group of Japanese ninjas becomes troublesome, paving the way for a spot of intrigue and plenty of laudable and highly enjoyable ninja tricks.
After a slightly passive start from Damian Lau the two central actors grab hold of the viewer and take us along a filmic journey bursting with action and packed with stories steeped in culture and ancient traditions, with elaborate sets beautifully dressed to recreate the proud sense of tradition found in the era. As previously noted the pacing is key here, with a brisk 83 minute run time the story progresses without a moment to spare while the action drifts seamlessly from classical swordplay to fantasy martial arts employing wire tricks to great effect. The real treat here for the martial arts fans however are the ninja displays, ranging from the dirty tricks of nude female ninjas preying on a man of god to the more traditional tunnelling, disappearing and flying gags which I for one derive great pleasure from. Reminiscent of Ninja in the Dragon's Den only several times more outrageous the displays of ninja trickery are bolstered by the brutally violent deaths bestowed upon the masses, with the final blow Hashimoto delivers in one key sequence deserving of a laugh and applause, it's just that much fun! That after all this mayhem the pending finale delivers above and beyond the call of duty is a genuine treat, with Tsui Siu-Keung and Damian Lau asked to clash swords with the best of them against a stunning backdrop of crashing waves in a mountainous arena while slowly becoming more blood-soaked before the closing cards redefine the meaning of 'over the top'. Marvellous!
Picture and Sound
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen this is another release from Hong Kong Legends to benefit from the recent spate of Fortune Star remasters. Taken from a new high-definition source coupled with the fact titles from this era of Hong Kong movies always tend to look better than late eighties to early nineties releases and you have a very fine looking film indeed. Print damage is kept to an absolute minimum throughout, with grain also quite negligible and only really noticeable in low-light shots. Detail levels do vary with interior sets and daytime exterior shoots offering the best levels, save for a few shots which are slightly out of focus while night time interior and exterior sequences suffer from reduced shadow detail and enveloping black levels. Colour reproduction is generally very strong though skin tones do appear a little rich while the lush greens of the forest exteriors are more washed out than I would prefer. On the whole this is an excellent restoration and one that has been transferred very well to disc, with only some unnecessary minor edge enhancement and a lengthy layer-change spoiling the proceedings.
In what looks set to be a new trend for HKL titles you will find both Cantonese and English 5.1 remixes alongside the original Cantonese Mono soundtrack (channelled through both front speakers). The latter is both in sync and of surprisingly good quality, with the films riveting main theme spread nicely across the front speakers while clarity is maintained for both dialogue and sound effects. The 5.1 options are of a high standard, offering greater separation across the front channels with the main score for example pushed back a little to make way for dialogue and sound effects. With only minor surround channel usage such as creating ambience through sound effects there is little between the 5.1 and Mono options to my ear, so whichever you choose should satisfy.
Optional English subtitles are present in a mid-sized white font with black outline, making them easy to read and not too intrusive upon the image. They do not appear to be even loosely based on the English dub script, often completely different while both Chinese signs and the song lyrics from the closing theme are translated along with the dialogue. English SDH and Dutch subtitle options are also present.
Offering plenty of insider knowledge once again is Bey Logan in the commentary booth, detailing the films production and the significance it held at the time of release. Biographical information is imparted for the majority of cast and crew along with personal encounters Bey might have had with those involved, giving us an idea of the men (and women) behind the characters. As we have come to expect this is another worthy track that is only marred slightly here by a technical oversight, with Logan's comments being out of sync with the onscreen action, making his scene-specific comments a little hard to follow (especially the pointing out of background actors and stuntmen). The obvious explanation behind the oversight is where the track begins, with his comments starting after the Fortune Star logo when they should really have been timed to the start.
Video based supplements for this release include two interview sessions with central cast members, and a most welcome featurette that goes behind wire-assisted action techniques employed by Hong Kong stunt crews. Tsui Siu-Keung is the first interviewee, speaking in Cantonese you may have seen Tsui on an earlier HKL release making the background segment of this interview slightly redundant, but after the first few minutes discussion moves to his experiences on Duel to the Death and follows a patented trail of questioning examining the cast and crew, his impressions of them and how the shoot went in general. Tsui is quite proud of his art and speaks with much enthusiasm, coming off a little better here than my last impression of him on a HKL release where I found him to be slightly full of himself. The other cast member interviewed is Flora Cheung, who speaking in English describes her experiences both on the film, its action and the Hong Kong film industry in general which she left not long after completing Duel to the Death. Looking wonderful over twenty years later Flora speaks with fondness towards the film and its director, and pays the most peculiar compliment to the Y chromosome members of the species.
No Strings Attached is the aforementioned featurette, running for 27 minutes HKL regulars may remember its host Jude Poyer as one of the better commentators they employed during their experimental stage a couple of years back. Poyer's claim to fame is that of being one of the first Westerners to become a bonafide Hong Kong Stuntman, ideally placing him within the industry making him the perfect candidate to host a mini-documentary on the inner workings of wire-assisted action. Acting as host, stunt co-ordinator and director of a short action film Poyer works with a stunt-team to create a short action set-piece which uses wires in every sense imaginable. From rigging up the key players, props and even the cameraman each shot is analysed and complimented by interviews with the stunt-team who share a sense of camaraderie on what is a gruelling process showing the dedication these guys have. The end-result is a little hokey but a good piece of low-budget action cinema and great entertainment to boot. Maybe Poyer should be reconsidered for further commentary contributions, or at the very least bring him back for more featurettes like these.
Rounding out the disc are original theatrical and promotional trailers for Duel to the Death along with several promotional trailers for other HKL and Premier Asia releases.
Fox R1 Comparison
Taken from the same Fortune Star source this NTSC release available through Fox Home Entertainment at a budget price ($9.98) offers a very nice rendition of the picture with a transfer that benefits from practically no edge enhancement whatsoever. Detractors come in the form of extended levels of grain which coupled with night-time shots make for a more unstable looking image, one that pales somewhat in comparison to the enhanced resolution offered by the PAL format with detail more prevalent on the HKL DVD. A fine example of this can be seen in the second comparison shot (see below) where the wood texture and painted Chinese symbols show a leap in clarity not found on the Fox image, while the comparison shot with Tsui Siu-Keung shows how the colour levels vary slightly. Here we see the skin tones on the HKL release tend to be slightly too rich with red very much dominating the image, while the Fox disc is a little too pale with murky yellow and brown hues quite obvious, neither really striking the correct balance while in the other two shots differences really are negligible and mostly down to the edge enhancement found on the HKL transfer. Finally it’s worth pointing out the Fox transfer is interlaced, leading to the usual detractors on a progressive display.
Below are some comparison images. Simply click the thumbnails to view full size versions with HKL grabs above, Fox below.
In terms of audio tracks you will find Cantonese and English 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround remixes, both surprisingly true to the source with no tampering to any sound effects that I could ascertain. The mixes are slightly more daring than HKL 5.1 options, with the final duel for example throwing you right into the action as waves crash down upon each speaker and the sound effects of swords clashing really pierce the ears. The presence of DTS will thrill many but with such limited source material it only serves as the superior track for the basic reason that DTS uses a higher bitrate, giving it an immediate but not significant edge.
Subtitles are, unusually for an R1 release, in a white font with black outline and at a more preferable size to the HKL disc, slightly smaller and intruding less upon the image. These are pure dubtitles, sticking closely to the English dub script and failing to cover the Chinese signs and lyrics from the closing theme song.
Extra features are rather pathetic, extending to original and promotional trailers of Duel to the Death along with promotional trailers for other Fox Martial Arts releases.
Delivering in all the right areas Duel to the Death is a slice of classic Hong Kong martial arts cinema which hints at the revolution that was about to dawn upon the genre in proceeding years. Ching Siu-Tung has gone on to prove himself time and again with the possible recent exception of Naked Weapon, so if you're still trying to get that one out of your system I suggest you give Duel to the Death a spin on DVD.
For the comparison junkies out there you have a straightforward decision, with the HKL release offering better picture, sound, subtitles and extras there really is no other choice for PAL friendly consumers. The Fox R1 DVD is only marginally worse in the presentation department, so if NTSC is your preference or extras simply don't interest you then it's a solid purchase.