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 an 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 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 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.
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-focussed 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.
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.
On 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 head first 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 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 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.