My favorite wuxia. Set in medieval China on the eve of a once-a-decade contest between China’s greatest swordsman and Japan’s greatest swordsman. The Chinese champion is Ching Wan. The Japanese champion is Hashimoto. Unbeknownst to Hashimoto, his Shogun has a secret agenda involving a ninja army.
And it’s those ninjas that elevate Duel to the Death. They explode, emerge from ocean seas, erupt from the ground, unite to form a giant gestalt ninja, strip to distract modest monks, and float in on homemade hang-gliders. This bonkers insanity culminates with the ninja leader’s severed head saying “A Zen monk feels no pain,” before exploding. I loved it.
Contrasting that cartoonishness, the Ching Wan and Hashimoto story plays out with stoic determination. When the climactic battle arrives, the script demonstrates unexpected depth. Ching Wan proves reluctant to fight while circumstances have left Hashimoto with nothing but the fight. We understand both men’s perspectives and recognize their mutual respect. It’s not a trite matter of good versus evil, but of equal masters fighting because they must. This imbues the finale with genuine tension. We care about both characters and the outcome is unsure. Rare in any film, let alone a martial arts entry.
I also loved the location photography. No generic soundstages. The battles happen on real beachfronts and forests. This enhances the visual effect of the ninjas exploding from the sand or trees. And the combats proffer lots of wide shots and interesting camera angles.
The Eureka Blu-ray looks fantastic. Aside from an establishing shot or two, the scan offers pristine clarity. So much that it betrays the wires and makeup seams in some shots. A minor nit.
- Eureka Entertainment, 2021↩