Popular Shaw Brothers babes Ti Lung and David Chiang star in yet another Chang Cheh film about fraternal love, Duel of Fists. This came runner up to The Big Boss in the 1971 Hong Kong box office, but it’s much better.
Chang Cheh keeps things very simple in terms of plot, leaving as much room as possible for the action—on his fathers dying wish, Fan Ko (David Chiang) goes to Thailand to find his brother Wen Leih (Ti Lung), a Thai boxer. The boxing world is rife with crime, and it’s not long before the boys get caught up in the mess.
Yes, you could probably say action is what this film is all about, but to me it was all about style. As one of the few Shaw brothers films set in the present day, Duel of Fists has license to be a 70’s film, with all that that entails. David Chiang has never looked more comfortable than in the varying succession of groovy threads he gets to wear throughout the film (watch out for the cowboy-pimp outfit he sports at the end of the film). Even the henchmen get to dress up, and the group brawls are given a visual boost as our heroes are surrounded by goons in a myriad of brightly coloured shirts, offset by painfully tight looking flairs. If that’s not enough, David Chiang also demonstrates the best way to avoid a car and pick up a date at the same time (take note people). Ti Lung also gets some good outfits, but none to rival David’s. If the fashion isn’t enough, there’s a great funky soundtrack and more whip pans then you can poke a stick at.
Unusually for a Shaw Brothers film, much of this was shot in Thailand. Having the real locations instead of cheap sets (though there are still some in there) really helps this film, and sets it apart from many of the run of the mill efforts that came out that the same time. It also adds an authentic touch that grounds the picture.
Another thing that sets this film apart is the fight choreography. It’s some of the best I’ve seen, and it should come as no surprise that it was done by the legendary Lau Kar Leung. Lau has always taken care to showcase the real martial art where possible and you can see that here in some very accurate Muay Thai bouts. Ti Lung makes a credible Thai boxer, showing why he was one of the Shaw Brothers best screen fighters, and strangely enough the brutality of the matches is almost up to par with the recent Ong Bak. The action outside the ring is purposefully less pure: it’s not kung fu, it’s brawling, and there are some really well staged group battles. There’s a lot of action in this film; the two distinct styles (and inventive choreography and camerawork) keep the film from getting repetitive. You could argue that there would probably be more guns around at the time, but when we get to see Chiang and Lung kicking and punching their way through hordes of goons, we can’t complain.
Chang Cheh makes films about men and their relationships. There are actually women in the film, love interests for the male leads, but they really don’t have much to do with the film. Chang Cheh exemplifies this with the rather odd ending. Another hint from Chang Cheh that a man’s better off with a man (a notion Cheh protégé John Woo would drive into the ground in later films)
Chang Cheh’s films are often, for no readily apparent reason, more enjoyable than they should be. The hokiness seems only to add to the films. Many elements of this film are quite strange: for example, the photo Chiang has by which to identify his brother with shows his distinguishing tattoo, although he’s only about 10 years old. The plot manages to be simple while still not making much sense. The sound effects guy must have been trying something new when they shot this, because all punches and kicks sound like bits of wood smashing together. Yet somehow all these elements come together to make the film a really fun experience. It also provides more than enough reason for a jaded moviegoer to fall in love with the 70’s again.