Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Shaw Bros. Spotlight

‘Duel of the Century’— A Film Noir Martial Arts Detective Story

Shaw Bros. Weekend Spotlight

Mystery and intrigue inspire an intrepid, confident sleuth to decipher the many machinations behind a series of appalling, loosely motivated murders, all of which are tied in some fashion or another to a bigger event, one with possible political motivations. The protagonist is a bright, analytical fellow who often has a snappy quip or two that lightens the tension of scenes involving great danger. With the help of some allies, a plot of emotional betrayal, misguided faith, revenge, and insatiable political greed. If that reads exactly like the synopsis of a good old fashioned film noir adventure, that is because it fits the bill perfectly. No, readers need not fear of having clicked on the incorrect link and landed in the Friday Noir column, this is very much Shaw Brothers Saturdays. Take film noir, drape it in the aesthetics of late 70s and early 80s kung fu cinema and one is left with Chor Yuen’s Duel of the Century.

Across the country, there is an impalpable buzz surrounding an upcoming duel between two legendary martial arts masters, Shimen Chuei Shiue (Yueh Hue) and Ye Gucheng (Jason Pai Piao). Neither knows the other intimately. In fact, as word has it, they have never even met! Lu Xiaofeng (Lau Wing)  equally gifted in the martial arts, is a curious cat who, along with a few friends, heads off to a strange hut outsider city limits where lives an informant. Pay him 50 gold taels and he answers a question.  Albeit a stiff price just for information, Lu uses the informant’s answers to start his own private investigation into the odd and fast approaching duel. A long trim friend of Ye Gucheng, Lu assumes something is amiss, suspicions that are quickly confirmed once some unusual characters are seen hanging around Ye’s house. Lu is about to discover that the roots of the evil pulling the strings run frighteningly deep and will have ramifications on all of China unless Lu foils the plot.

Duel of the Century

Here is a film that bridges together the best of two magnificent film universes: the private eye detective story and the martial arts adventure. Chor Yuen, one of the directors working within the studio system with a more impressive pedigree than most, successfully melds the two to create an action film that invites viewers to guess along with the characters what the source of the corruption might be. While the director feels the need to stop at certain intervals for combat-focused set pieces, the majority of the film adheres to the style of detective stories, with Lu lurking about, gathering clues that keep sending him elsewhere for, what else, further clues. A handful of scenes see Lu pause to think aloud about the most recent events and weigh the collection of accumulated intelligence, sometimes alone, other times with friends who challenge his conclusions. As he races from place to place, the trail is increasingly layered with blood as the bodies of witnesses begin to pile up.

Duel of the Century is the Detective Story Version of a Martial Arts Spectacle

On the whole, the effort to provide the story with a true sense of mystery is admirable. Many times it actually does feel like the viewer is involved in an entertaining ‘whodunnit’ where the stakes are raised with each subsequent revelation, the latter which have implications for the  Emperor’s throne in the Forbidden City. On the other hand, the intel is not always presented with consistent clarity, dubious English language subtitling being partly the culprit, with of the blame shared by the films’s frequent insistence on trying to marry some scenes that should remain within the parameters of the detective genre with typical Shaw Brothers erratic storytelling (bombs needlessly going off in service of cheap tension being a recurring issue), making some of the surprises come off as too random, thus ailing the original intent of developing a mystery tale. By the film’s second half, there is an increasing sense that things are being made up by the director-screenwriter as they go along. Even though it loses its way somewhat near the end, the overall experience is nonetheless engaging.

Duel of the Century

On the topic of the film engaging the viewer, the protagonist Lu Xiaofeng is an absolute delight. He is a lighter version of a hard-boiled detective, venturing headfirst into what are clearly dangerous situations, determined like none other to tear away the veils of secrecy about the impending duel, using as much logic as the script permits to put two and two together, all with a tremendous sense of fun. He is a bit of a wisecracker, willing to make light of desperate situations, like asking a hoard of bloodthirsty assassins. if he can question their selected target just as they go in for the kill. That upbeat mentality keeps the proceedings very entertaining, even when the script begins to falter in the latter stages, with much of the credit going to actor Lau Wing, poised with a  limitless reserve of energy and charisma.

Director Chor Yuen demonstrates creativity and boldness with respect to the action scenes and in the selection of certain locales. The fight choreography suffers in that it is slower than in the best martial arts brawls, but the presentation of the weapons and their utilization are frequently quite different and fresher than what viewers are accustomed to, the most visually thrilling being a gang of flame throwers who uses tiny candles as their source of the fire.  There is another, albeit brief sequence that puts an unorthodox spin on a familiar setting when Lu and a witness hunt for further intel at a gay brothel, not something Shaw films featured heavily, to say the least. Duel of the Century has plenty of such off-kilter, rather unique touches that do help differentiate it and keep the viewer wondering what sort of unusual predicaments Lu will jump into next.

Duel of the Century

Duel of the Century is by no means perfect. That said, it represents a legitimate attempt at trying something different while paying homage to a beloved genre. Despite its flaws,  Chor Yuen’s inventive direction provides the picture with impressive spirit, even leading up to the final eponymous contest.

  • Edgar Chaput

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly column about the Shaw Bros. film studio.

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We update daily. Support our site by simply following us on Twitter and Facebook

You May Also Like

Games

What is the best Donkey Kong Country Game? The Donkey Kong Country games are fun. Ridiculously fun, even. So fun that they’ve stamped themselves into gaming...

Games

The Donkey Kong Country Soundtracks “If you listen, you can hear it coming…” Reggie Fils-Aime’s famous words before the reveal of Donkey Kong Country Returns on...

Games

10 Years Later: Donkey Kong Country Returns stands head and shoulders above the rest! The idea of bringing back older games and genres from...

Wrestling

Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin Best Survivor Series Matches (1996) The greatest and arguably most important match in Survivor Series history is without a doubt, Bret...

Games

While a cynic may see it as being nothing more than another form of advertising, there’s a lot to admire about a studio that...

Wrestling

Deadman Walking Best Survivor Series Matches (1991) Survivor Series 1990 is known for the iconic debut of The Undertaker, and technically that is correct...

Games

10 Franchises That Should Return As exciting as it is to witness companies and developers continue to make strides in expanding the boundaries of...

Blog

At some point, someone will probably run Doom on a smart toaster. If someone hasn’t managed such a feat already, it’s just a matter...