DUEL OF THE CENTURY (1981)
(Directed by Yuen Chor)
(Written by Yu Chin and Lung Ku)
(Starring Tony Liu, Jason Pai and Elliot Ngok)
Plot: Lu Xiaofeng (Tony Liu) is an eccentric inspector who is close friends with both Ximen Chuixue (Elliot Ngok) and Ye Gucheng (Jason Pai), two of the worlds greatest swordsmen, so is stunned when Ye challenges Ximen to a duel. He investigates and uncovers a deadly conspiracy that might consume them all…Also known as “Liu Xiao Feng zhi jue zhan qian hou“.
While I was watching “Duel of the Century“, I began to think that there was something familiar about it until a memory was kicked into my brain from a mysterious assailant. When I found my bearings and turned upon my attacker, I stared into the eyes of an old nemesis of mine, “The Duel (2000)“. I gave it a courteous, impassioned nod for the sake of politeness, because I’ve grown to accept that it is not a bad movie…even though it had just injured me…But I have traumatic memories of seeing that awesome international trailer when it was first released and wanting to see the full length film, despairing when my local video failed to carry it. I was overjoyed when I saw a copy for sale at the mall. I spent $30, placed it in my DVD player and eagerly awaited to experience awesomeness dipped in awesomesauce…and got annoying comedy and shitty special effects. I felt even more betrayed when “The Duel” twisted its knife in my stomach by having my local video store start carrying copies for rental LITERALLY THE DAY AFTER MY PURCHASE. Years later, I would give the movie a second chance and forgave it as I was more used to Hong Kong comedy and their less-than-polished CGI by then. Yet from out of the shadows- startling both myself and “The Duel“- arrives a common foe, for this villain is what truly manipulated us against each-other…”The Master Swordsman“. These days, I am aware that it was a Singaporean TV Show, but I didn’t know this when I viewed it two weeks prior to buying “The Duel“. It had been marketed as a movie in the states and I was beaten up badly by the confusing story, bland fight scenes and awful production values. Because I had been so young, I never realized that both were adaptations of the same book and had presumed that “The Duel” was an unnecessary rip-off of an unnecessary piece of shit. Maybe I wouldn’t have been bothered so much if a year had gone by before experiencing them both at once, but I have not forgotten my anger…my rage…Gritting my teeth, I arm myself with wannabe critiquing skills and drop my pants…because that is how I do combat…but before I expect to be maimed once more, a hero comes to my rescue! A handsome man with nice clothing and a sharp sword, he slices “The Master Swordsman” in two using his ‘Engaging mystery, fun characters, lots of action’ technique before knocking out “The Duel” using his famed ‘cool visuals’ strike. Suddenly all bad memories are gone, replaced by enthusiasm and excitement, a desire to see more of the source material.
And then “Duel of the Century” and I made sweet, passionate love.
Unfortunately, I feel like most of “Duel of the Century“‘s past lovers would disapprove of our relationship, as they thought it…came up short… Apparently part of this is because “Clash of the Amazons“- its predecessor- was much better, although I haven’t seen it myself. I can understand why some would be turned off by this wuxia mystery, as the script is pretty convoluted. I had difficulty telling how characters were related to each-other and their purpose within the story. The information walls are so dense that it’s hard to keep up with everything and I thought some of the editing was too abrupt. It’s rather baffling when characters are talking, only for it to suddenly cut to an action scene with little context. Yet…I really did have a strong positive reaction to the story. Lu Xiaofeng (Tony Liu) is an awesome protagonist, being a skilled fighter who contrasts nicely with the world around him, relying on hand-to-hand combat and having an eccentric personality compared to the sword wielding stiffs he surrounds himself with. He’s funny, charming and has mad deductive skills, but he isn’t beyond making mistakes either. The supporting cast also caught my attention, even when they didn’t have the most screen-time to work with. The dialogue was clever and funny too, which makes the exposition go down a little more smoothly. But above everything, I loved how everything was shrouded in mystery. Every time you think that the story is unraveling, you realize that only the surface has been scratched. Yet every scene seems to work to build up this intrigue, with little time dedicated to filler. I have to admit that I wasn’t always sure where this is going, which is especially embarrassing considering that I had already seen two other adaptations…My eyes and ears were glued to the screen, while my brain was gasping for air because it was not meant to be used this much. Confusing? Yes. But it was confusing so good…
I thought the action was satisfying, although it’s surprisingly 90’s-ish for a 1981 release. You can tell that the majority of these actors weren’t real martial artists, as crafty direction, weird gimmicks and manipulative editing are used to drive the fighting. This never bothered me though, as it was all…good crafty direction and…good manipulative editing…(#bestcriticever!!!) I thought the choreography had a nice flow to it, primarily because of all the colorful styles involved. Everyone has a unique way of fighting, which lead to some interesting scenarios. I like the group who based their tactics around star constellations, although everyone seemingly has cool tricks up their sleeves. But while helping design the blueprints of a bandwagon that would be ridden throughout the 1990’s, the choreography itself is usually pretty traditional. I was going to say ‘old school’, but I guess it wouldn’t have been considered old school in the 1980’s… Yuen Chor is a very stylish director, so expect some eye candy as well. The sets are fairly elaborate, the costumes are colorful (red ninjas?!), the back-drops are always aesthetically appealing and the action is often used to enhance his visuals. Chor’s more popular “The Magic Blade” is definitely better when it comes to the action and style, but “Duel of the Century” still does stand out amongst the masses with its own visual appeal. It was also so intensely paced that I wanted to see more. I’m actually kind of sad that this didn’t become its own franchise, as I’d happily follow Lu Xiaofeng (Tony Liu) and his friends through more adventures. Yes, I acknowledge that there is too much story and material to cram into this rather short running time, which isn’t helped by an action sequence appearing in every other scene. But I was invested, even if I was often hitting the rewind button. I can finally move on from my disappointment with “The Duel”, sparing it from certain death in my heart and soul. I can even move on from my hatred of “The Master Swordsman” and have even given it a proper burial in my mind. “Duel of the Century” excited me so much that I want to pursue Gu Long’s “Lu Xiaofeng” novel series- even (or especially) “Juezhan Qianhou”, which all three films were adapted from.
I might be the only one who enjoys blowing “Duel of the Century“, but I’m definitely blowing “Duel of the Century“.
Violence: Probably Rated R worthy, as there is a lot of death.
Overall: “Duel of the Century” is a kung fu mystery that kept me entertained and enthralled, despite it not being for everyone.