Sunday, May 24, 2015

Duel to the Death

Duel to the Death's title implies that it's going to be something of a long, frustrating march to the fireworks factory. The finale is indeed an impressive show-stopper of a fight which slowly builds to the bombastic spectacle of the combatants reshaping nature around them but the build-up is impressive too.

It begins with a meticulously edited scene in which ninjas hunt for a book. Searching library shelves doesn't sound exciting on the face of it but the camera - anxiously gliding along the shelves, searching just as restlessly and as athletically as the ninjas - sells the scene. Bold stylisation helps sell later scenes too. Duel to the Death makes a motif of characters striding or running towards distant cameras set at low angles; the fights are well choreographed and use wire-fu judiciously; and the production design features some truly unusual imagery (including men suspended from ropes in a geometric pattern and hang gliders stalking men on foot).

The film is equally attuned to its characters' warring passions. Personal pride, love, nationalism and honour are all set against one another. Furthermore all the characters are offered a measure of dignity. The film's sole female fighter gets a truly badass introduction (executing a particularly harsh but fitting bit of revenge) and a potentially unctuous scene in which she tries on clothing coded as feminine is defanged by focusing on her pleasure rather than indulging the audience. Her hands are shown in close-up sliding through silk sleeves (practically caressing them) and the last shot is of her smile as she combs out her hair.

All of the above does pay off spectacularly when Duel to the Death does culminate in its heroes dueling to the, well, you know what. Yet while the fight may thrillingly defy the laws of gravity its conclusion is also genuinely sobering.

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