1983's Duel to the Death is among the best there is in the martial arts genre. It isn't a meditation on the beauty of the Orient like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon... but it is highly stylized and surreal, juxtaposing portrait-worthy scenes of imminent death and disfigurement in exotic locales, and bizarre visuals like dozens of people hanging by their outstretched arms in a pitch black void. It isn't a crafty and clever ballet along the lines of a Yuen Woo-Ping epic (Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, etc.)... but the action is nuanced and guided, letting you discern every intention and thought of the person fighting.
The plot focuses on a Chinese swordsman from Shaolin and a Japanese swordsman, both selected as representatives to duel one another (yes...to the death!) in a once-per-decade national pissing contest. It would seem that with true mastery over fighting techniques comes virtue, as these two are far and away the most principled characters in the cast. You will find yourself still rooting for the Japanese fighter (you'll root for both the whole time, by the way) even after he does one of the most dickish things you could ever conceive of.
As the Japanese fighter makes his way to mainland China, treachery and sabotage and awful people doing despicable things in the name of national pride is the name of the game. We learn several things during this journey:
- The Chinese fucking hate the Japanese (true of the characters, true of the filmmakers)
- If you're a martial arts master, flying ain't no thang. The laws of the universe bend to the will of kung fu fighters (the wire-work is abysmal, but not without its charm)
- Ninjas are super-wizard exploding robot people who can do whatever the hell they want (church!)
The only real letdown in the movie is an absurd change-of-pace scene when the Chinese swordsman leaves Shaolin to visit his master before the duel. The master is an obnoxious hodgepodge of the worst martial art movie stereotypes... a clown prince/beggar type who scampers up trees with reckless abandon. He flips and flies around and none of it makes a lick of sense. And to make matters worse, there's a talking cockatoo for a double (shitty) dose of comic relief in a wholly unnecessary segment.
By the end of the movie, though, you'll have seen a talking decapitated head, a gigantic ninja made of several other ninjas, someone flying butt-first through a wall while sitting Indian Style, and an ancient ninja technique that's never explained but consists of boobies. There will be a plot twist that even the most jaded movie-goer won't guess. And then there's the Duel to the Death itself, a fight so awesome that despite its rather short length, it really and truly deserves a whole movie named after it. If only every propaganda piece could be so entertaining...