For some reason I thought this movie was made in 1970 whilst I was watching it, and was impressed that Chor Yuen's movies were already so accomplished by that time. It turns out it was actually made in 1977 though, some time after MAGIC BLADE and Clans Of Intrigue, compared to which it feels rather less accomplished.
Yet again, Chor Yuen adapts a novel by Ku Long for this movie, and it follows the typical Ku Long mold. The wu xia world is once more the scene of much intrigue and power play, as one clan seeks dominance over the others. One wonders why it seems so attractive, as those who are considered to be the master swordsmen of their time all seem to have tired of the killing and want to live a normal, peaceful life. Once one has made a name for oneself in the Jiang Hu, however, it is very difficult to escape from it.
Derek Yee makes his movie debut here, as one such swordsman who wishes to live a peaceful life. He accepts a job doing menial work in a brothel for food and board, and tries hard to blend into the background. His past inevitably catches up with him, of course.
Movies based on Ku Long novels can have a tendency to be hard to follow... Ku Long is very fond of his conspiracies and intrigue, and also likes to introduce hundreds of characters. Chor Yuen is usually very good at extracting the essence in a form suitable for the screen, but here he seems to fall victim to the wish to tell everything that's in the book. New characters are introduced every couple of minutes, though for the most part there's no time to get to know them as they fight for a while then die. The movie moves from fight to fight with barely a pause for breath, and manages to rack up an absolutely enormous body count. This constant parade of characters and fights makes it a little difficult to follow what's going on for more than 5 minutes at a time, and obscures rather than expands what is basically quite a simple central story line.
The movie still shows Chor Yuen's style as a director though. It's filmed almost entirely on indoor sets, but lusciously constructed sets that give the movie that unique Shaw Brothers touch. Chor Yuen's art direction and eye for camera positioning means that he always makes these sets look a lot better than Chang Cheh ever managed. Coupled with the gorgeous costumes, there's no doubt that DEATH DUEL is a visual feast.
With so much fighting, the success of the film naturally depends largely on the choreography. Tong Gai directs the action here, without regular partner Lau Kar-Leung (who had become a fully fledged director by this point I guess). Although Lau Kar-Leung is the most respected and appreciated of the pair, Tong Gai shows that he's no slouch of a choreographer here, with some great fight scenes. He's primarily known for his weapons work, but there's a lot of hand to hand fighting too - actually mostly hand to weapon, as Derek Yee tends to take on swordsman bare handed, bravely. In 1977 the world of martial arts choreography was about to change dramatically as Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Wo-Ping became directors and started creating their own more fluid fight styles. The fights in DEATH DUEL look a little dated in comparison to the new generation's work, but they are still quite impressive and enjoyable to watch - and noticably better than Tong Gai and Lau Kar-Leung's work in Blood Brothers (1973), for example.
Derek Yee makes a great debut with the film, impressing with his good looks and acting and to a lesser degree with his kung fu. It's hard to imagine the same guy going on to direct movies such as The Lunatics, C'est La Vie Mon Cheri and Viva Erotica! I've enjoyed his directorial work a lot though, and look forward to seeing more of his work as an actor.
Of the Chor Yuen wu xia movies that I've seen, Death Duel is the weakest because it simply tries to squeeze in too many characters. It still has that beautiful artistic style of his, though, and the moments of poetry and philosophy that make his films more thoughtful than those of Chang Cheh.
This week, however, Chor Yuen went up against a tough opponent with Chang Cheh's BLOOD BROTHERS (probably his best work, of those I've seen), and DEATH DUEL just wasn't a good enough effort to take the prize this time around.
It still gets a mild recommendation, but seek out other Chor Yuen films such as CLANS OF INTRIGUE first.