Duel To The Death has been called one of the greatest swordplay movies of all time, and despite earning big at the box office upon its release in 1983 it’s never garnered much of a following beyond hard core Wuxia fans. Thankfully, Eureka Entertainment have brought this classic martial arts movie to Blu-ray, giving the world a chance to discover this wild movie.
The story, set in the 16th century Ming Dynasty, centres on a competition between China and Japan that’s held every ten years. The greatest swordsman from each country travels to compete against each other for the honour of their nation, with the winner being crowned as a hero, whilst the loser is doomed to die. This year the two competitors are Ching Wan (Damian Lau), the Chinese champion who has been studying at the Shaolin Temple, and Miyamoto (Norman Chu), the wandering Samurai from Japan.
There’s more going on than just a simple fight to the death, however, as the film begins with the daring night time raid of a Shaolin Temple by a group of ninjas. Copying secret documents that contain the lists of the best warriors in China, as well as a guide to their fighting techniques, the ninjas are ultimately defeated; but this is just the beginning, as a larger conspiracy begins to be unveiled. Readying themselves for their fight with each other, Ching Wan and Miyamoto discover a secret plot between a Japanese Shogun and their Chinese host. Working together to stop the plot, the two fighters form a respect for each other, and could even become friends. But honour dictates that they must still fight each other to the death.
Despite the trailer for the film, included on the Blu-ray, depicting this as a big action piece, there’s a lot subtly going on in the background of Duel To The Death. There are plots, political machinations, and conversations on what honour and duty really mean. Much of these discussions come from Ching Wan, who out of the two competitors is the more open to looking at things from another angle. Miyamoto, on the other hand, is much more concerned with honour; which is common to the way the Japanese have been portrayed in Chinese cinema in the past. But one thing that makes this film particularly interesting is that despite pitting the two men against each other neither one is presented as the villain.
There has been a lot of animosity between China and Japan over the years, especially following World War Two, and other films of this era are happy to portray the Japanese as villains. And whilst Miyamoto is ultimately the one who insists that the two men complete their obligations to fight to the death it’s not done out of any kind of malice, or wish to harm a man he genuinely seems to respect. Instead, it seems to be something of an examination of how duty and honour have historically been a much bigger part of Japanese culture than Chinese.
It’s not just introspection and political double dealings though; this film is packed to the rafters with fight scenes. And ninjas. So many ninjas. If you’re a fan of ninjas this is a film that you’re going to want to check out. It has night time raids, throwing stars, exploding ninjas, flying kite riding ninjas, female ninjas who use nakedness to mess with monks, ninjas that move under the ground, and even a giant ninja made up of several smaller ones like some kind of Voltron. It’s wild.
And if after that brief rundown of all of the ninjas you can expect to find in this film isn’t enough to whet your appetite, there’s the titular duel itself. Held on a cliff edge over a raging sea, with mist coming down off the mountains and waves crashing over the competitors it’s like something out of an anime. The two swordsmen sail through the air, smash through rocks, and brutalise each other in what is easily one of the best fight scenes I’ve seen. It has to be seen, even if you’re not the biggest martial arts fan.
The new Blu-ray release features a really good looking 2K restoration of the film, and whilst it isn’t crystal clear it’s still the best the film has ever looked. It also has options to watch the film with an English dub, or the original Cantonese audio track alongside brand new subtitles that use the correct Japanese translations for the first time ever.
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Possibly most interesting on the disc, however, is the host of interviews with stars of the film, as well as a lengthy new interview with the original screenwriter Manfred Wong, as well as a full feature length audio commentary with Asian expert Frank Djeng. The commentary track is great, with Djeng delivering a ton of insight into both the making of the film, as well as information on the careers of the various people involved and the way the film was received when it came out. You can tell in the commentary that Djeng is a big fan of the film, thanks to how much he tries to pack in for the audience, speaking incredibly fast at times to try and give you as much information as he can.
Whether you’re a long time martial arts fan or just someone looking to pick up an interesting movie, Duel To The Death should be on your list. It’s a film that more than deserves its reputation for being one of the best sword fighting movies ever made.
Duel To The Death is out on Blu-ray on 20th September from Eureka Entertainment.