Oh, look, it’s another brightly-coloured Chu Yuan fantasy swordplay film, like the squillions of other ones he made for Shaw Brothers — except that this one has a number of features that make it a little different, and a bit of a surprise as well. Made in 1977, this film stars Derek Yee (David Chiang’s younger brother, and director of 2004’s great One Nite in Mongkok) as Third Master, reputedly the number one swordsman in the world. His stature is challenged by Yen Shi-san (played by Ling Yun), who we see dispatch six opponents in thirteen blows at the beginning of the film. Yen Shi-san is baited by the devious Mu Yun Chiu-ti (Chen Ping) into seeking out Third Master in order to challenge him and find out who’s the better fighter.
This reasonably straightforward plan goes a little awry when Yen Shi-san arrives to discover that Third Master is already dead, having passed away 15 days earlier. Abruptly, we go to follow Third Master, who’s not dead at all — he’s simply faked his death, changed his name to Ah Chi and become a wanderer, seeking to escape his fame. He begins working at a brothel doing odd jobs, until he finds himself drawn back into events when he tries to help a young prostitute named Hsiao Li (Yu An-an). This poor girl’s family seem to suffer an awful lot once our hero’s discovered, actually — seems not a day goes past without the door being kicked in.
Along the way, Third Master meets some fairly heavy-weight characters from his former world, including Ti Lung as his wandering swordsman from The Magic Blade, Fu Hung-hsueh. He’s put down his sword and become a nameless woodcutter, seeking to avoid having to fight hundreds of duels a year. Similarly, Lo Lieh appears and cautions Third Master against revealing his identity too often. David Chiang also makes a surprising appearance, later on in the film. It’s this commentary on the swordplay genre that I found most interesting about the film — it seems that all these great heroes realise the futility of what they do and seek to leave the underworld and become anonymous, only to find that it’s not that easy to escape. We know that eventually Third Master and Yen Shi-san will meet up, and that the duel between them will have to happen, regardless of how much Third Master tries to prevent it.
Death Duel, despite the title, is a quieter, less action-packed film than a lot of the other swordplay films in the Shaw Brothers stable, focusing more on Third Master’s character development. There’s still a fight every now and then, though, and they’re well performed and well shot. There’s also a pretty gruesome scene showing surgery being performed on our hero’s arm, once it’s been cut wide open, which much have been quite an effort for the makeup department. I didn’t find Derek Yee quite as charismatic as some of the other actors that have filled similar roles (Ti Lung, David Chiang, etc) but he does a pretty good job overall.
Definitely worth seeing for a more complex take on this type of film, and for the cameos if you’re a fan of Chu Yuan’s underworld films!