Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘Duel for Gold’ keeps the viewers on their toes and guessing
Directed by Chor Yuen
Written by Ni Kuang
Hong Kong, 1971
A heist film presents a host of wonderful potentialities to engage a viewer. There is the attraction of a sizable bounty, the disparate individuals who contest for the prize, the moral ambiguity in cheering on the protagonists who seek to circumvent the the law in obtaining want they desire, the tactics involved in executing the plan, the execution proper and, provided the film extends itself beyond the heist, the double crosses that may arise afterwards once the culprits seek to preserve their winnings for themselves. Director Chor Yuen uses the premise of a heist and fuses it with the unmistakable action Shaw Brothers studio was known for in Duel for Gold.
The story features a number of characters vying for an immense amount of gold which is heavily guarded in a bank. The chief of security is one Master Shen (Chin Han) who is forced to fend off attempts from multiple forces whose interest in the golden teals is a little too intense. The antagonists are a rogues gallery of villains: sisters Yu Yen and Yu Ying (Ivy Ling Po and Wang Ping respectively), their husbands When Lin Hsien and Hua Tieh Er, played by Richard Chan Chun and Chung Wa, and lastly one individual operating on his own accord, the nefarious bandit known to most people as the Lone Shadow (Lo Lieh). Shen is is not adept at setting up tight security, but happens to be a highly skilled swordsman and martial artist, hence any encounter between him and the villains end up in a stalemate most of the time. When the Yu sisters and their husbands are aided by a lawless gang one night and infiltrate the institution with a mixture of cunning and brute force, not even top level security can prevent the loot from being taken away. That is only a part of the story however, as the twists and turns pile on, it turns nobody involved in the plan can really be trusted, not by a long shot.
What makes Duel for Gold such a compelling feature is in its capacity to stay true to certain critical aspects of Shaw template while feeling fresh at the same time. The individuality of the film rests, essentially, in the fact that director Chor Yuen and screenwriter Ni Kuang utilize the heist flick as the backbone for the film. It is a script with very little fat to it, putting most of the emphasis on the central objective. The story cuts to the chase almost immediately, introduce the principle players that shall engage in the game of cat and mouse (with swords) to come over the next 90 minutes. It also helps that, at least for the first hour or so, it genuinely is difficult to guess where the film will end up, who will survive, who will be caught, who will be left standing, and, most interestingly, just exactly who is on whose side. This last aspect is how Duel distinguishes itself the most. A lot of if not most Shaw Brothers adventures will clearly state who represents the side of evil. In some instances, Human Lanterns being an example, there does not seem to be any decent characters at all, but that is more the exception than the rule. In Duel, knowing where each character’s allegiance lies is something of a wild guessing game. When it appears that the stakes have been claimed and made clear, someone comes along and double crosses everybody else, therefore keeping the viewer on his or her toes as well. A clever way to develop the plot which succeeds in preserving the intrigue and suspense.
Chor Yuen is not necessarily one of the more widely known directors to have realized some Shaw Brothers movies (Chang Cheh, Lar Kar-leung and King Hu usually come to mind first), but watching Duel proves to be an eye opening experience. The director himself has an eye for creating instantly memorable scenes and moments which frequently strike the viewer for their sheer oddity, as if the shots had been extracted out of the director’s dream. The brilliant images arrive as soon as the opening titles credits role. Intersected with a shot of the blistering sun are rapid fire edits which reveal two things, a pile of golden taels and a man’s bloody cadaver. The juxtaposition of the tonally opposed images function in a way that seems nearly subliminal, Chor Yuen telling us indirectly how at least one character, unknown to the audience at this stage, will see his mission to grab the riches conclude. The introduction of the Yu sisters is another example of strong direction which reserves surprises. When first depicted, the viewer is unaware of who these two beauties are. They have a crowd gather around in the middle of the street as they impress them with a performance of acrobatics, concluding with one sister supporting her sibling in the air as the tips of their two swords touch one another. It comes unexpectedly and is impressive, but it does not end there. The crowd claps and cheers in appreciation for a moment, and then collectively holds its breath anew as the sisters remain in said position. Will the prefect balance be lost, causing one sister to inadvertently kill the other? The answer is obvious enough, but the director is smart enough to milk the most he can out of the audiences, both the one in the movie and the one watching the movie. Even the fights themselves are delivered with exciting moments that arrive out of the blue, such as when, in the idst of a terrific sword fight between Shen and the Yu sisters in a tea shop (which sees the combatants jumping over, onto and crashing into tons of chairs and tables), the former gives one of the sisters a single spank on the bum with his sword. Yet another strange moment occurs when the Lone Shadow surprises Shen and some of his men in the streets one night. How he does this goes unexplained, but Shadow has huge trees thrown into the ground, trapping the men in a small quarter as if in a small prison cell. The physical and technical plausibility behind such moments are not always sound, but provided the visceral effect carries over well from the film to the viewer, than all is forgiven, and Chor Yuen is extremely good at this.
The further the story trudges along, the more desperate the double cross attempts become. It is doubtful that the viewer will find him or herself gravitating towards any character in particular to cheer them onwards. Nobody involved in the heist appears to own any scruples whatsoever. Each is perfectly willing to betray and even murder people they reportedly loved only hours ago. It does end up making almost everybody in the film rather vile, which might be the film’s single most important flaw. To back stab (sometimes literally) their partners so willingly must mean these characters are incredibly heartless and in a way incredibly stupid too. Clearly, nobody dies easily in these films, so launching a knife into somebody’s chest probably will not be the end of a betrayal, yet the characters keep on doing it, constantly thinking their troubles are over, that is until they receive a blade in the flesh as well.
Duel for Gold presents the world of the martial arts film in slightly different light, with a heist operation being the crux of the story rather than yet another revenge tale, or any sort of wu xia themed battle inspired by history or literature. The movie is loaded with impressive, unexpected moments, both action-oriented and otherwise. One need only get ready to keep guessing who is playing who for the fool!