Death Duel – the darkness beneath the light

 Chinese title – 三少爺的劍

Sumptuous and glamorous mise en scene gilds a dark morality play in Chor Yuen’s Death Duel.

Shaw brothers, Hong Kong, 1977
Main Cast – Derek Yee, Chen Ping, Candice Yu On On, Ling Yun;
Scenario & Director – Chor Yuen; Martial Arts Instructors – Tong Gai & Wong Pau Gei
Full cast and crew can be found on the Hong Kong Movie Database here.



During the 70s, the Shaw Brothers studios churned out many wuxia pian (swordplay or martial chivalry films) that were elaborately choreographed and gorgeously arrayed with sumptuous looking costumes and sets. Death Duel would have to be one of the most glamorous and richly decorated films I have seen in the genre, and that’s really saying something! But the film’s complex and engrossing story has a darkness that stands in stark contrast to the film’s glittering mise en scene and luscious cinematography – a  sense of gloom and even cynicism pervades the story of the film. The hero San Shao Yeh (played by Derek Yee) is nicknamed “Hopeless Ah Chi” for part of the film by characters that assume he has no martial arts acumen. They are wrong, as it turns out, but still the nickname is oddly apt if one considers that it could be said to describe the pessimistic mood that challenges certain key characters in this film.  It is as if the gorgeousness of the film’s appearance disguises, and, by so doing, draws the viewer into a compelling mood piece with a ruthlessly despondent story.

One thing that fascinates me about the better kung fu movies and wuxia pian is how they seem to investigate the various aspects of what it means to be a martial artist. Mastery of self versus mastery of technique, heroism, courage, humility and integrity are themes that regularly pop up to challenge the heroes and heroines in these movies, some of them meeting happier endings than others (depending on the film). It’s as if Death Duel is using, and in using celebrating, the most lovely aspects of martial arts film making craft to reflexively critique the moral ugliness of creating a world of violence. These aspects include a mostly handsome cast turning in sensitive performances, trademark elegant choreography from Tong Gai and Wong Pau Gei, direction from Chor Yuen that is able to accommodate atmospheric moodiness alongside dynamic action, a fascinatingly melodramatic storyline, and, of course, the aforementioned chocolate box pretty costumes and scenery. All of these compel the viewer through a storyline that follows a despondent swordsman on a doomed mission to escape a reputation that makes him both a magnet for challengers and the means of their deaths.

The sense that the film’s gorgeous visual appeal is disguising something darker is borne out by the fact that many characters in this film are never quite who they seem. Our hero San Shao Yeh is first presented as an itinerant, down on his luck and penniless. His hesitant and introverted demeanour lead to him being scorned as the impotent and “hopeless Ah Chi”. However, San is subsequently revealed to be the pre-eminent swordsman in the land who is trying to turn his back on a life of carnage and violence. His love interest in the film is a girl (played by Candice Yu On On) who is thought to be working as a respectable maid by her family whereas, in reality, she is working as a prostitute. Yueh Hua has a small but important role as a doctor who, rather than being the altruistic healer he seems to be, turns out to be treacherous, mercenary and murderous. Two assassins, sent to kill San, arrive disguised as harmless chestnut sellers. San is also betrayed by the duplicitous wife of a friend when she reveals his whereabouts to his enemies. A significant case of mistaken identity occurs when a wounded and infected San meets up with Yen Shih San (played by Ling Yun), another skilled swordsman who, mistakenly believing that San is dead, thereby preventing Yen from challenging him as a test of skill, is living in seclusion as a healer. Without the 2 men knowing each others’ identity, San is healed by Yen. The dramatic irony of this plot development leads to San being restored to full health and therefore able to fight and, reluctantly, kill Yen in the film’s final fight scene.

Death Duel lays out for us the rewards and consequences of attaining fame as a swordsman. Successful warriors and their entourages are shown to be richly dressed and living in luxurious places, moving through a splendidly furnished and arrayed world. Fame and influence are afforded them. The elegant and fluid choreography of Tong Gai and Wong Pau Gei glamorises the skill of the fighters by making their movements a thing of beauty – when these characters are at their most violent such choreography affords them a grace and aesthetic appeal that seduces the viewer* and establishes their heroism.

But the darker consequences of a life of violence are also laid out. Many, many people die, including the innocent. Some important cameos also drive home the unfortunate effects of living as a fighter. David Chiang appears in a bizarre cameo as a swordsman who has literally been driven mad by his martial arts practice. Ti Lung pops up as the swordsman he played in The Magic Blade, now, according to Death Duel, living in hiding as a wood gatherer. In the same scene Lo Lieh puts in a brief appearance as the swordsman he played in Killer Clans. Both these characters carry with them a sense of melancholy and of being estranged from everyday life. Ultimately, San is denied the chance to escape his life as a swordsman, driven back to his warrior existence by the murders of his friends and lover and the unceasing pursuit of his enemies and challengers.

The cynicism of the film’s story extends to the virtuous and innocent characters in the film. As mentioned above, key innocent characters tend to die violent deaths. Apart from this, Death Duel shows us innocence besmirched or undermined: a good girl becomes a prostitute, her loyal and kind brother (played by Ku Feng) is driven to madness by her death. Another of San’s loyal friends, a mute (played by Fan Mei Sheng) is deceived by his wife (Teresa Ha Ping) and driven to suicide. A darkly funny scene depicts two characters, a scholar (Lau Luk Wa) and a maid (Chan Si Gaai), renouncing lives of chastity and virtue to rush off in pursuit of sex and gambling opportunities in response to San’s enquiry about what they would do if they only had a few days to live.

The appearance of things that are bizarre or grotesque is another counterpoint to Death Duel‘s abundant aesthetic appeal. I have already mentioned that supporting characters include a mute and a mad man (who is kept chained in a cage). During his cameo, Lo Lieh’s character delivers a speech while smearing his face in blood. But the goriest, nastiest physical injuries seem to be the preserve of San. Twice in the film he is seriously wounded in his forearms. The second of these wounds, in which his very bones are penetrated and infected by Yueh Hua’s treacherous doctor, are healed by Yen in an equally disgusting procedure**. These grotesque elements do not in any way overwhelm the film, but are another way in which Chor complicates the viewers experience of Death Duels’ beauty.

And it is this complicated viewing experience that is Death Duel’s greatest success. Chor Yuen pulls off a delicate balancing act in which different elements of the film – art direction, story, swordplay, quality of performances – all pull together to provide a good entertaining watch. But Death Duel rewards rewatching on a deeper and more attentive level. The dark pull of its air of melancholy and its depiction of nihilism are just as well served by those same elements. Chor Yuen and his cast and crew have managed to produce a compelling mood piece for the viewer, one that offers the somewhat decadent experience of enjoying a visually arresting and dynamic film while meditating on the morality of its violence.

* I can never get over how martial arts films pull this one off. I hate violence generally, but martial arts films are my favourite genre! Go figure…
**Featuring a close up of the wound I could have done without seeing.

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