Duel with the Devils (1977)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-08-19
Summary: Decent action, excellent Angela
Ling is a man beset by enemies on all sides in “Duel with the Devils”. The movie begins with him discovering the bodies of his slain son and father and the realization that his wife has been carried off by the killers. It ends with him leaping for his life from to top of a flaming pagoda. For the hour or so that separates these scenes he fights against the Japanese occupiers of his homeland and their Chinese collaborators, picking up some valuable (and attractive) allies but also facing treachery and betrayal.

All roads lead to the pagoda, on obviously alien structure in the Chinese countryside. The remains of Ling’s wife are on an altar at the top of the pagoda and on each level on the way up he encounters someone who tries to stop him. These foes are a multi-ethnic and variously talented group. The first is a Caucasian in a ruffled shirt, an expert fencer armed with a rapier who is left muttering about “Chinese Kung Fu.” Next are two muscular wrestlers, obviously Asian but of no obvious origin—nor would any country want to claim these two, who are strong, fast and very stupid. They end up in a very awkward and embarrassing position. On the third level is a South Asian fighter with a whip and a handful of throwing daggers—as soon as the daggers come out we know that at least one of them will wind up buried in him. Before he can get to the top level Ling encounters some trip wires and booby traps, with huge stones falling from the ceiling and hatchets flying through the air.

Finally there is a Japanese swordsman, an opponent who seems as tough and resourceful as Ling and who comes closer and closer to a killing blow with his weapon. Ling dispatches him with a very unlikely weapon, one that will have to be seen to be believed. When he reaches the altar with the ashes (which have been treated very respectfully by the Japanese) he is confronted by a ju-jitsu expert who defeats him and throws him from the pagoda. Ling catches a desperate handhold and scrambles back. He is facing his final defeat when he sees a vision of his wife, gains strength from the sight and beats his final opponent.

And then the fire breaks out....

There are a lot of well choreographed fights in “Duel with the Devils”. Before he gets to the pagoda skirmishes Dorian Tan Tao-Liang spends most of his time fighting, preparing to fight or recovering from a fight. He is aided by Angela Mao Ying, elegant and athletic and able to drop any man with one well placed kick to the head. She was the main reason I got this disc and while she isn’t the star she is featured and has enough screen time to leave a few score bad guys lying on the ground.

There is no question of the identity of the devils in the title. Ox, played by Cheng Fu-Hung, becomes Ling’s follower in order to “kill all the Japanese and the Chinese who work with them” at least according to the dub on this release which seems to convey the spirit of things. The Japanese, all of whom wear kimonos and sandals with white stockings or army uniforms, take what and whom they want from their reluctant hosts. They go out of their way to humiliate the Chinese—there is the almost obligatory scene of a gang of them walking through a crowded street shoving aside anyone in their path and smashing anything they can reach while the citizens cower in fear. They are guilty of everything from petty theft to summary execution and provide plenty of targets for the martial arts talents of Dorian and Angela.

One theme that was introduced and then abandoned involved equating the Japanese with the British in the 19th century. Like the British, the Japanese were using opium to help control the Chinese population but other than a few scenes in an underground hellhole complete with bubbling cauldrons and Japanese overseers whipping Chinese slave laborers it didn’t go anywhere. It did use a very well designed and stark set that showed the complete degradation of the Chinese laborers.

The scenes in the pagoda go on for too long—Ling rolling away from the crack of a whip is only interesting for a short time, for example, and the two wrestlers should have been dealt with in half the time it took. Watching muscle-bound brutes act dumb is something that a many U.S. residents like to do on Sunday afternoon but it is pretty boring in a martial arts film. There are a few interesting scenes before that. One is a fight which pits Ling, Ox and Angela Mao’s character against what seems to be a battalion of sword wielding Japanese. The fight takes place on a train and a Pullman car has the perfect dimensions to accommodate the “line up and get kicked or punched one by one” school of action choreography.

A strange one is the recognition scene between Ling and his wife. After being kidnapped she has become the consort of a particularly slimy Japanese official, something which she obviously regrets but which she has to do in order to stay alive. The scene is strangely shot and cut. Ling, covered with blood having cut his way through half the palace guard, bursts into a dinner party with entertainment. She is astonished to see him which makes sense. He is just as surprised, which makes no sense at all since he has spent most of the movie until then looking for her and has been told just minutes before exactly where to find her. There surprise is indicated by jump cuts (a lot of jump cuts) between the two of them interspersed with zooms in on each of them. Looking surprised for a length of time was not in the acting repertory of Dorian Tan Tao-Liang when “Duel with the Devils” was shot.

Recommended for the almost non-stop action, especially those parts with Angela Mao