Film / Duel to the Death

Duel to the Death is a 1983 Hong Kong/South Korean film starring Damian Lau and Norman Chu. It is the directorial debut of Siu-Tung Ching. It is often considered to be one of the last in the era of the old Hong Kong Kung-fu films.

The plot follows a contest held every ten years where the greatest swordsman from Japan faces the greatest swordsman from China in a duel to the death for their nation's honor. As one of these duels approaches, we follow Chinese champion Ching Wan as he leaves his life of seclusion at a Shaolin monastery and Japanese champion Hashimoto leaving Japan under tragic circumstances and traveling to China. Both head to Holy Sword House, the location where the first such duel was fought, and where the descendants of the Chinese representative who won that duel still live and host the bout every time it is fought.

Meanwhile, something strange is going on throughout China. Notable Chinese fighters and sites famous for their martial arts are being attacked by ninja. As the time of the duel comes closer, Ching Wan and Hashimoto uncover a plot to rig the fight for sinister purposes. The movie follows their delving into the conspiracy.

Note: there are at least two fairly different English dubs, so depending on which one you've seen (or if you've seen the movie subtitled or in the original language) your experience of the tropes used could be different.
Tropes associated with this work:

  • Action Girl: Sheng Nan, the latest descendant of Holy Sword House, and only daughter of its current Lord. She's a highly capable fighter, if not in in the class of Hasimoto and Ching Wan. Naturally, she and Ching Wan quickly develop more than a slight interest in each other.
  • All-Loving Hero: Ching Wan.
  • Bad Ass: There are plenty of them around, from Shaolin masters to Warrior Poet Ching Wan, to the Chinese fighter with the huge broadsword and fancy moves, but Hashimoto probably has the most obvious attitude and demeanor of one. He can easily check off the boxes for stoicism, overwhelming ability, being a Determinator who won't back down from anything, and tending to win his fights in a curb stomp.
  • Barehanded Blade Block: Subverted. Ching Wan grabs Hashimoto's blade with one hand out of desperation during the final duel. Hashimoto responds by rotating the blade, severing Ching Wan's fingers.
  • Big Bad: The Shogun with Kenji serving as his Dragon, albeit the shogun only appears briefly and never gets any comeuppance other than his plan failing.
  • Blood Knight: Hashimoto fights to test and better himself, rather than to earn glory or political power.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Hashimoto appears to start the movie as this, cheerfully instructing a young boy how to hold his own against dojo bullies and then partying hard with his friends. The death of his sensei helps turn him into a stoic badass focused only on winning the duel.
  • Break the Haughty: The last time we see the Lord of Heavenly Sword House, he's a gibbering wreck bawling over the body of Sheng Nan and repeating a Madness Mantra.
  • Combat by Champion: The whole point of the duel, although the Japanese are planning to use it as the first step to actual combat and conquering China, see The Plan below.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: The ninjas always attack in large numbers, so they're fairly weak. They are clever though, and often overwhelm opponents through unorthodox tactics or sheer numbers.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Hashimoto vs Sheng Nan. She does better fencing with Ching Wan, but it becomes clear that she's outclassed in that fight too.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Hashimoto becomes much more serious and driven after the death of his sensei. It may also be why when Hashimoto tries to force Ching Wan to fighting him, he does it by killing Ching Wan's mentor/father figure.
  • Death Seeker: Hashimoto after he decides to refuse orders to throw the fight. He knows he will be branded a traitor to Japan and only dying in battle or winning the duel (or both) will have any chance of saving him, his school, and his family rom dishonor.
  • Defector from Decadence: Hashimoto refuses to aid the Shogun's underhanded plan to weaken and attack China, finding it dishonorable.
  • Determinator: Hashimoto is one, and won't back away from any fight regardless of the odds or who he's taking on. (Well, aside from his refusal to fight Sheng Nan anymore after realizing that he's fighting a woman, although he already had her defeated.) In at least one dub Ching Wan cites this as the thing he admires most about Japanese warriors, and feels that most of the Chinese fighters he has known lacked the sort of determination needed to truly master their skills. Deconstructed towards the end of the movie when Ching Wan is completely baffled by Hashimoto's insistence on still fighting the duel, despite the fact that Hashimoto seemingly has nothing to gain from it and the only possible result will be piling on yet more death and mayhem.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A couple of Japanese men are in China. While in the city, they see a puppet show where Hashimoto (and, by extension, Japan) are humiliated and beaten in the duel, much to the delight of the crowd. So they kill the puppeteer for the insult.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Ching Wan's abbot is attacked by ninjas and he does well fighting them off, until one of the ninjas suddenly strips, revealing that she is a woman. When he looks down and prays against desire, she uses a net to capture him.
  • Double Jump: A rare film example, when both duelists jump into the air and then jump again by pushing off of their own swords.
  • Downer Ending
  • Duel to the Death: The film centers around one.
  • Due to the Dead Hashimoto and Ching Wan pay a visit to the shrine where all the past combatants have been buried, and are both affected by it.
  • The Dying Walk: The film ends with Ching Wan starting to walk away from the conclusion of his duel with Hashimoto. Considering the sheer number of serious wounds Ching Wan has, it's pretty strongly implied that it's a case of this, where he's just leaving the site of the duel so he can die in peace.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Ching Wan is deferential to his majestic Shaolin mentors, then goes out into the forest to say goodbye to his wacky hermit kung fu master, showing that he is both wise and humble.
    • Hashimoto cheerfully gives a child being picked on by bullies advice on how to defend himself, and is deferential to both his master and the Japanese government when he is assigned his mission, but when ambushed by a strange man in costume, Hashimoto cuts the man (actually Hashimoto's sensei in disguise) down without hesitation or even questioning who the man is or why he's trying to fight Hashimoto. This establishes him as decent and good natured in general, but completely ruthless in battle and willing to fight without having a good reason or knowing what he's fighting for.
    • Sheng Nan's comes from helping a helpless Chinese woman kill the two samurai who killed the woman's husband, and clashing against both Hashimoto and Ching Wan. It shows her to have a keen sense of justice and be a skilled fighter, but also that she tries too hard to live up to her attempts at passing herself off as hardass swordsman.
    • The Zen Monk arrogantly tries to provoke the monks at the Shaolin Monastery he is visiting into a fight to prove the superiority of the Japanese, gives condescending faux compliments to his hosts, and when the bout is interrupted by Ching Wan almost immediately after it starts, the Zen Monk nonetheless proclaims that he was victorious despite having landed only a single blow. Smug Snake and Bitch in Sheep's Clothing all the way.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: When Ching Wan travels through a Chinese city, he encounters a man drawing how he imagines Ching Wan would look, which bears no resemblance to the real thing. When Ching Wan tells the man his drawing isn't accurate, (without mentioning who he is) the artist's response is to essentially go on about all the attributes of his portrait and say that a fighter as powerful as Ching Wan would surely look just like that.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Ching Wan.
  • Genius Bruiser: Ching Wan is scholarly and philosophical in addition to being a warrior.
  • Gratuitous Ninja: The film features quite a lot of ninja action, including kamikaze exploding ninja, kite-riding ninja, naked lady ninja, and giant voltron ninja.
  • Handicapped Badass: The Lord of Heavenly Sword House, thanks to a pair of prosthetic legs.
  • Honor Before Reason: Hashimoto refuses to engage in dishonorable actions, even when the Shogun is demanding it.
  • I Gave My Word
  • Ignored Epiphany: Ching Wan and Sheng Nan both try to convince Sheng's father that working with the Japanese is wrong. He hesitates at first, perhaps realizing that the scheme will probably be uncovered and the Japanese won't lift a finger to save him afterwards, but he ultimately tries to backstab Ching Wan at the first opportunity.
  • Implausible Fencing Powers: The sword fighting is quite in the realm of fantasy. At one point while plummeting to the earth, they put their swords beneath their feet and jump off their swords to go back up again.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Lord of Heavenly Sword House. Things haven't gotten quite as bad as the trope description, but he keenly feels the loss of his family's reputation and influence.
  • Karma Houdini: The Shogun. Sure, his plan failed, but it's not as if anyone can punish him for the evils deeds done trying to carry out his plan and all the death and destruction it caused.
  • Kill 'em All: By the end of the movie the only named character who's still definitely alive and sane is Ching Wan, and he's been stabbed in the chest, had one arm cut off and lost all the fingers from the hand on his remaining arm, so his long term prospects aren't looking all that good.
  • Kick the Dog: Almost obligatory for a Japanese fighter in a Hong Kong production. Although Hashimoto's rigid honor prevented him from following the Shogun's underhanded plot, it also drives him to insist that the duel still take place in the end, when it's clear the only thing it would succeed in doing is causing more pointless death. He even kills Ching Wan's unarmed master to force Ching Wan to fight. Perhaps a way for the production to make us root for the Chinese fighter instead of the Japanese at the very end. (It is a Hong Kong film, after all).
  • Let's You and Him Fight: The movie makes clear to us that both Ching Wan and Hashimoto are good young guys who start growing to like, respect, and trust each other before they have to fight to the death.
  • Mle Trois
  • Mutual Kill: The ending strongly implies that both Hashimoto and Ching Wan die of their wounds.
  • No Name Given: We only known The Lord of the Holy Sword House by his title.
  • The Quisling: The Lord of Heavenly Sword House.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Neither Hashimoto or Ching Wan are fooled by Sheng Nan dressing in drag. Some Western viewers might not even realize at first that she's trying to pass as a man.
  • The Perils of Being the Best: In at least one of the dubs, Ching Wan is all too aware that whoever wins will probably spend the rest of their life being challenged by swordsmen eager to become famous. Ching Wan is keenly aware of just how much this is likely to suck, and expresses sadness at the thought of having to live in such a manner, constantly forced to kill these challengers just to survive. Even if Ching Wan were to survive his various wounds from the duel, considering that the fight ends with him losing all the fingers on one hand and having the other arm cut off entirely, he probably won't have to worry about any of that. Not many swordsmen are eager to challenge a warrior who will never be able to hold a sword again. It's doubtful that he would appreciate the irony, however.
  • Pet the Dog: The first time we meet Hashimoto, he takes a young fencing student aside and teaches him how to defend himself against the older and larger dojo mates that are bullying him.
  • The Plan: The plan of the Japanese general (or the Shogun, depending on the translation) is to invite only prominent martial artists of China to view the duel, kidnap them on their way, and bring them to Japan where the strengths and weaknesses of their martial arts can be examined to aid Japan in conflict with China. In return for his help, the Lord of Heavenly Sword House will get to substitute Sheng Nan for Ching Wan (after incapacitating Ching Wan) and the Japanese general will have Hashimoto throw the fight, restoring Heavenly Sword House to its former position as the most respected school in China.
  • Politeness Judo: When characters from the two nations talk together, there is often a lot of false politeness, with barbs hidden just under the surface. The exception is when Hashimoto and Ching Wan speak to each other, as it's clear they share a sense of mutual respect.
  • Pride: The main flaw of the Lord of Heavenly Sword House.
  • Regretful Traitor: Sheng Nan does not approve of her father's plan to help the Japanese and possibly undermine China, and tries to convince him to change his mind. She goes along with the early steps of his plan by helping him capture Ching Wan, but is clearly guilty about her involvement to betray Ching Wan and her countrymen, and being called out by Hashimoto for her actions makes her free Ching Wan.
  • The Resenter: The Lord of Holy Sword House has spent his life hating the fact that his family is neither appreciated by the Chinese people, and are not chosen as China's duelists, despite his certainty that they're the best. This lead him into working with the Japanese...
  • Sinister Minister: The Zen Monk is something of a Smug Snake who imagines that he's more clever and tough than he really is. He's also completely ignoring any actual Buddhist teachings in favor of cooperating completely with the Shogun for material gain.
  • Spanner in the Works: The schemers on both the Chinese and Japanese sides didn't count on Sheng Nan falling for and helping Ching Wan, or that Hashimoto would choose his sense of honor over nationalism.
  • Stepping-Stone Sword: Both duelists jump off of their swords in midair.
  • Take That: The film aims some societal criticism at both Japan and China, criticizing the militarism and war mongering of Japanese history and the ambitious, greedy warlords who only care about themselves or their family line that have played such a large role In China's past.
  • Taking You with Me: When the ninjas are being overwhelmed while attacking Ching Wan's monastery, they elect to do this rather than be captured.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Both Kenji, (the Zen Monk) and the Lord of Heavenly Sword House.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: The main reason Ching Wan cares about the Duel is because he is trying to please his various mentors and father figures.
  • Wire Fu
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Sheng Nan meets Hashimoto not long after he enters China challenges him to a fight. He quickly overwhelms her, then stops and proclaims that he doesn't fight against women when he sees through her Paper-Thin Disguise.
  • Wuxia