More a blood-soaked canvas than a picture of stoic engagement, Chang Cheh’s The Duel bursts at the seams with splashes of color and rage, filling each frame with crushing deathblows and screaming fits of fury. Being a Shaw Brothers production, the film’s conversations, promises, and threats merely act as bridges for characters to cross from one massacre to the next. More surprisingly, each of these kinetic set pieces develops emotion just as much as action, providing the film’s thematic center and moral compass. Aside from the endless ass-kicking, The Duel slyly contemplates the trickle-down effect of political corruption, forcing its heroic avengers to sidestep the law to destroy power hungry bureaucrats stifling communal peace and happiness.
In the opening moments of the film, Tan Jen-chieh (Ti Lung) rests easily in a tattoo parlor getting a massive butterfly etched onto his finely chiseled chest, a representation of his love for the pure and innocent Hue-dieh (Ping Wang). But this momentary peace doesn’t last long, as Tan gets pushed into a battle between his warlord grandfather and a deadly rival. Director Chang builds this opening crescendo of violence as if constructing a western showdown, as groups of warriors walk down the dirt-covered streets scattering innocents to the wind. When swords and knives start flying, The Duel immediately positions itself as a cinematic killing field, rupturing arteries and piercing bellies on a grand scale. The carnage gets embroidered into the surroundings, staining walls, shirts, and faces with varying shades of red. This brutal battle leaves Tan exiled, his patriarch murdered, and all sense of home crushed. Of course, revenge is on the horizon.
After a year away, Tan returns home to find his family name squandered by greedy lieutenants, his girlfriend entrenched in prostitution, and his hometown a hotbed of shady activity. Even more disconcerting, a potent killer named the Rambler (David Chiang) keeps popping up, complicating matters of trust and identity. These familiar plot devices bounce Tan from the frying pan into the fire, and all hell breaks loose right on schedule. The Duel serves up one elongated blood bath after the next, dispatching henchmen and the occasional common citizen with effortless glee. But each action sequence contains enough freshness to transcend genre conventions, and in one contained bit of mayhem, Tan must defend himself from rampaging goons in the middle of a women’s dormitory, jumping through bunk beds and spinning around screaming bystanders dressed in pajamas. The extreme cramped space makes his kung fu even more impressive and kill shots even more devastating.
As Tan and the Rambler slice their way through the lengthy narrative, Chang establishes color as a key thematic device. Aside from the rivers of blood flowing in every direction, Chang uses small flashes of red, whether it’s sharp table clothes, drapes, or signposts to break up the frame and provide warnings to the impending destruction of community. This pattern comes to a beautiful apex when a group of gangsters trample over a food cart vendor’s fresh crop of tomatoes, leaving only crushed bits in their wake. The red pulp seeps into the sand, merging with the dusty yellow haze of the background, and Chang uses a long lens to relish in the contrast of textures and colors.
The Duel turns in violent circles for most of its running time, but the final battle sequence gratuitously displays the film’s keen attempt at political commentary. Tan inevitably vanquishes all of the evildoers he can find, but not surprisingly the powerful Senator who has been pulling the strings manages to avoid punishment. All the knife thrusts and blood splatter can’t bring Tan’s broken town complete justice, and Chang understands the futility of trying to master the faceless forces working from behind the curtain of government. This realistic sense of morality gets brilliantly solidified in the final bit of sacrifice shared between Tan and the Rambler. In one last stab at transcending their surroundings, both men attempt to rise off the ground despite their serious injuries. Instead of showing the duo upright and heroic, Chang ends the film in a stunningly ambiguous freeze frame, leaving the viewer with a viable sense of fatality that offsets the genre’s familiar codes of honor and sacrifice. It’s a personal duel for survival that cannot be completed, no matter how prolific your kung fu.
The trademark gloss and color schemes defining the 1970s Shaw Brothers Studio productions come through nicely with this image transfer, especially during the countless moments blood spatters the frame. Even more impressively, the competing hues of green, yellow, blue, and brown all contrast beautifully, filling the frame with a cornucopia of vibrant set designs and costumes competing for the viewer's attention. The black levels are nicely leveled during the few night sequences, and all the dynamic actions are coherent. Most importantly for any kung fu movie, the sound design exhibits an expert range of slices, screams, and oozing blood, constructing nuance beyond the flashy imagery.
There are literally no extras on this disc, which really is inexcusable considering the importance and influence of the Shaw Brothers Studio, Chang Cheh, and the legion of iconic Hong Kong actors appearing in the film.
Successful as both Kung Fu mosaic and political commentary, Chang Cheh's The Duel gets a beautifully rendered DVD image but a terribly lacking disc devoid of extras.