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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 and Ching Wan have more than a slight interest in each other.
- Badass: Plenty, but Hashimoto probably has the most obvious attitude and demeanor of one.
- 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: Arguably, The Shogun with Kenji serving as his Dragon, albeit the shogun only appears briefly and never gets any comeuppance.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dead Sensei: For Hashimoto. Which is a major motivation for him. At the end, when Ching Wan refuses to fight Hashimoto, he kills Ching Wan's abbot/Shoalin mentor to force him into fighting.
- Defector From Decadence: Hashimoto's eventual decision not to aid the Shogun's plan to weaken and attack China (see Xanatos Gambit below for full details on that) is the most emotionally gripping part of the movie.
- Determinator: Hashimoto. In at least one dub Ching Wan cites this as the thing he admires most about Japanese warriors.
- Disproportionate Retribution: A couple of Japanese men are in China. While in the city, they see a puppet show where Hasimoto (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.
- Downer Ending
- Duel to the Death: Well, with that title...
- Due to the Dead
- Friend to All Living Things: Ching Wan.
- Genius Bruiser: Ching Wan is scholarly and philosophical in addition to being a warrior.
- Handicapped Badass: The Lord of Heavenly Sword House, thanks to a pair of prosthetic legs.
- Honor Before Reason: Hashimoto.
- 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. He misses and fatally wounds his daughter instead.
- Implausible Fencing Powers: And how!
- Impoverished Patrician: The Lord of Heavenly Sword House. Things haven't gotten quite as bad as the page 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 doubtful anyone can punish him for it.
- 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: Okay Hashimoto, we understand that your sensei's dying words were telling you to win the duel, and that you will be dishonored and reviled in Japan for not going along with the plot against China. We also understand that winning a duel with Ching Wan is the only possible chance of saving your name, or that of your dojo. But was it really necessary to kill the fatherly old monk so you could force Ching Wan to fight?
- 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.
- Lonely At the Top: In at least one dub, Ching Wan expresses sadness at how this is probably the fate of whoever is the top swordsman, especially since they will spend the rest of their life being challenged by other martial artists looking to make a name for themselves.
- Melee a Trois
- The Messiah: Ching Wan.
- Mutual Kill: The ending strongly implies that Hashimoto and Ching Wan die of their wounds.
- Narm: No matter which version you're watching, the bit where the Zen monk's head randomly explodes after being chopped off has to qualify.
- 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 like a man.
- Politeness Judo: There is a lot of false politeness in several conversations, with barbs underneath the surface.
- Pride: The main flaw of the Lord of Heavenly Sword House.
- 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...
- 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.
- Strawman Political: Surprisingly averted. The movie takes pains to show the good and bad of both nations, rather than movies like Bruce Lee's Fist Of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection), where all of the Chinese were oppressed saints and all the Japanese arrogant, ruthless assholes.
- 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.
- Trial by Combat
- Xanatos Gambit: 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.
- "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