Death Duel of Kung Fu (1979)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-04-01
“Death Duel of Kung Fu” is as average a movie as one can be. It has decently choreographed fights that are typical of the era, uninteresting cinematography, almost nonexistent set design and acting that consists largely of actors standing around either recovering from a fight or preparing for one. The movie surprised me in two instances: one was discovering that the hero was carrying the head of a slain traitor in a box to deliver to his superior officers in Taiwan; the other occurred when the lovely female star dropped the top of her kimono to distract gamblers she was trying to cheat.

Nationalist Chinese patriotism (Nationalist as the then and current rulers of Taiwan) was never far from the surface at least in the dubbed version we watched. Both Sun Shing Kwei and Sung Hsin, apparent rivals or even foes throughout most of the movie, were committed to Taiwan where the rightful rulers of China were waiting to for the right moment to conquer the mainland. The Nationalist/PRC split was emblematized by the Ching/Ming conflict. In several cases Sun Shing Kwei said that he had to get to “General Chang” (Chaing?) in order to deliver intelligence on the tactics of the enemy. He was also going to deliver the severed head of an enemy field marshal but that part of the plot line (and the head itself) was abandoned. That was a shame—it might have made for a more interesting film if the head had remained in play.

Another potentially intriguing aspect of “Death Duel of Kung Fu” was the use and subversion of the “male gaze”, represented by Sung Hsin looking at the partially nude body of the female lead. The first time was when she was cheating the gamblers and dropped her top. There was a close-up of her (or someone’s) very lovely breasts which the foolish gamblers concentrated on but Sung Hsin was interested in something else, a very striking looking medallion hanging between those breasts. It would prove to be a key plot point later on and Sung Hsin noticing it showed he was more astute than the others. The same two were involved in the second time—the woman was bathing in a stream. When she got out to dry off, there was Sung Hsin. She clutched her garments to herself and turned away from him but in this case he only had eyes for the very large and detailed tattoo of a snake on her back, the camera and by extension him ignoring the most likely lovely posterior she was presenting. The tattoo meant nothing in particular—two characters speculated a bit further along that she was Japanese and even a member of the royal family of Japan but, like the head in a box, this line of development simple stopped.

There were a few gaffes, the worst being a reverse angle shot of the aftermath of a fight which ended with To Ku Lan’s deadly finger poised over the carotid artery of his defeated opponent. On the reverse his finger wasn’t even close the foe’s throat. This is annoying or at least odd because the only reason that a director does such a shot is to show exactly the same scene from the point of view of the other character in the scene. It isn’t necessary to the narrative and there is no reason to include it in the finished film if they blew the shot. Another problem was the amount of ground covered on foot by Sun Shing Kwei with the camera recording every step he took climbing hills, going down the other side, fording a stream and even crossing what might have been a desert. The director really liked the long shots of him walking and walking and walking. There was nothing else going on—enemies did not leap from ambush, messengers did not arrive with news, friends were not encountered. The title might as well have been “Walking to Taiwan”.

These quibbles are offset by the martial arts grace and skill displayed every few minutes. John Liu Chung-Liang is a terrific kicker, able to deliver punishing blows with either foot rapidly, quickly and at any angle. Constructive editing can make it look as if an actor or stuntman can land a powerful kick to a target well over his head. In this case Liu was so convincing in doing what he was able to do that the audience was happy to suspend disbelief when he seemed to do the impossible. Eagle Han Ying was a terrific bad guy, a leader who was always willing to jump into a fray and his two sword wielding paladins were more than worth foes for the heroes. They actually forced Sun Shing Kwei to run for his life when they cornered him—the champion of justice fleeing before the weapons of evildoers. While doing so made all the sense in the world-- Sun Shing Kwei had already been badly wounded, was outnumbered and unarmed but protagonists of martial arts movies often overcome much longer odds than that. That he had such robust minions showed the power of To Ku Lan.

Recommended only for the fights
Reviewer Score: 5