One of the generalities that people assume about martial films is that being a master of some hand-to-hand (and foot-to-foot) style is the most dangerous occupation. After all, that's the genre most people associate with martial films, the chop socky, kung fu flick where someone has to master some empty hand style to fend off or get revenge on a bad guy. But truthfully, the hand-to-hand combat artist has it the easiest. It is the sword master that has it rough. The swordplay genre didn't take off like the kung fu flick, so, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon aside, there isn't the same pop culture history, thus fewer people know the anxieties of the sword master.
The difference is pretty simple. Aside from the occasional lopped off limb or attained and learned weapon/manual, most swordplay films establish heroes who are already masters of their art. So, there often isn't that learning curve or even the usual motivations that you find in kung fu films. Instead, from the start, the sword master is challenged and wrought with conflict simply because he is a badass. That's the thing about the art of the blade- once you learn it and everyone knows your name, you spend the rest of your life usually singularly alone with guys coming out of the woodwork to test your skills. In the kung fu film, a bashers rival is usually just one guy, maybe with a school or gang behind him, who has wronged them in some way. But, in the swordplay film, the blademasters, outside of a few friends, usually have to worry about the entire swordplay world challenging them, generally, just 'cause.
Gotta' be a hard way to live. A guy cant go get some tea without Three Eyebrow & Lightning-legged Wong crashing through the roof of the teahouse demanding to pit his Purple Snake Mountain whipsword style agaisnt your Fairy Lake, Lotus Palm, Monk swordgrip.
Duel of the Century (1981) comes from the Shaw Brothers master of the swordplay genre film, Chor Yuen, who would again, and for the last time, adapt one of novelist Ku Lung's expansive heroic tales. I admit that when I first discovered them, I hated Chor Yuen's swordplay films. When you grow up with the typical kung fu film, digesting them by the hundreds, and you finally run across a Chor Yuen/Ku Lung film it feels completely alien. Dissecting the films can often be maddening. They usually feature a huge cast of characters and labyrinthine plotting all thrown at you with such a pace that keeping track of who is who and why this guy hates that guy requires a flow chart and lots of rewinding. At first I just saw it as messy film making devoid of the sensible storytelling basics that would whittle down on the convolution. But, then I hit a turning point. After your tenth or so film of this sort, you realize there must be some reason for this repeated storytelling pattern, otherwise why repeat it?
It is a hard style to digest. I can totally understand why the tangled scenarios would turn people off. Obviously, the HK audience didn't care. As a matter of fact, because Chor Yuen and others made so many films that embraced packed and puzzling swordplay storylines the audience must have wanted and expected it. The films were made for people who had some familiarity with the novels/genre and wanted to make sure every little side character and stray bit of serialized subplot made it into the film even if that meant it was bloated. Complaining about 70's sword film convolution is like complaining about music in musicals. In a sense, if you don't like it, you just don't get it.
So, that said, I'm going to offer a simple synopsis but be forewarned, how the movie plays certainly isn't simple. When you boil the story down, yes, its a very straightforward tale, but if I were to get into the actual details and all the characters and twists and turns the film takes, it would give you an absolute headache making sense of it all. I'd have to take two or three passes at the film just to make sure I got everything and everyone straight. For instance, there is a know-it-all monk character giving the heroes information who ends up being one of the bad guys, and, thinking back, I cannot for the life of me figure out what the purpose deceiving them was other than to have a twisteroo moment in the film where some-marginal character-was-not-who-they-thought-he-was.
The swordplay world is abuzz with the news that Shimen Chuishiue (Yueh Hua) and Ye Gucheng (Jason Pai Piao) are going to have a duel. Because the two don't have any kind of known rivalry, the duel doesn't make sense to anyone, especially to the heroic Lu Xiaofeng (Liu Yung), who is friends with Ye Gucheng and knows him to be a virtuous individual not pettily drawn into fights. When Lu Xiaofeng goes to ask about the reasons for the duel and Ye Gucheng's attack on another swordsman, the brother-in-law of Shimen Chuishiue, his friend is uncharacteristically silent and evasive about his motivation and then disappears. The more Lu Xiaofeng investigates, the more the plot thickens, leading to many an ambush, poisonings, trails begetting more trails, and finally the conspiracy at the heart of it all.
I'd rank this as a fairly weak Chor Yuen swordplay flick. I much prefer The Magic Blade, Sentimental Swordsman, or his more middling, off the wall efforts like The Spirit of the Sword and even the ridiculously confusing Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre. Though not a swordplay, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Chor Yuen's most well-regarded work, is a must see. Duel of the Century's action is pretty standard, the finale duel itself is a letdown, and the plot is nothing special, fairly routine. The only real winning element is our affable, unfettered lead, a character who Liu Yung also played in Chor Yuen's Clan of Amazons, which I also recommend as a swordplay superior film.
The DVD: Well Go USA
Picture: The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The print is quite clean. The colors appear pretty robust, and there are no severe problems with film grain or spotting. The contrast is relatively deep as well. Where the transfer falters is in terms of sharpness with some scenes appearing a bit soft especially in the center frame.
Sound: Disappointingly, Well Go only offers a sole 5.1 Surround Mandarin remix instead of an original mono track. The English subtitles are also a bit of a bother, timed way too fast, with a few grammatical errors, and less than ideal translation.
Extras: The sole extra is the films original theatrical trailer.
Conclusion: By the time Duel of the Century was released, Chor Yuen had already flexed his muscle better in the genre, the Shaw's days as a film studio were numbered, and the style of the choreography was looking quaint next to the likes of Patrick Tam's The Sword and Ching Sui Tung's Duel to the Death. This is certainly not the film I would use to turn people onto the genre, so it is best reserved for those who have already digested other 70's era, HK swordplay films. The DVD is pretty basic, so this one easily falls in line with a rental. Plus, for potential purchasers, Well Go has this film in a reasonably priced four film box set, The Shaw Brothers Collection, so thats the way to go if you want to buy it (and, no disrespect, but I personally disagree with the content/replay rating of the review I linked).