The Taiwanese action historical Duel with Samurai (1971) appears to be set in the Ming Dynasty when Japanese wako pirates were a nuisance along the Chinese coast, & Japanese robbers occasionally set up headquarters on Chinese turf. The film never quite specifies a particular time & place, however, for Duel with Samurai has no particular plot. Instead it has a premise: Which is better? Chinese or Japanese sword?
Being from the point of view of Chinese filmmakers it might be expected that Chinese sword is definitively better, but the "way of the samurai" has a mythic hold on the imaginations of many more peoples than just the Japanese. It is surprisingly non-racist, "surprising" because so often in Chinese films when samurai are played by Chinese actors, they amount to caricatures & racial stereotypes making the Japanese look stupid & cruel. And understandable cultural grudges against Japan do still linger from the SinoJapanese War.
The antagonist is a cute young fellow calling himself "Nippon Ronin" (Kong Ban). His costuming is slightly askew from the real thing, as it's a Chinese wardrober's idea of how to dress a samurai. The actor makes a valiant effort to imitate the proper use of katana, mostly by ending his generally Chinese style assaults with a kamae posture. Despite inaccuracies, & within its limitations, the film is visually attractive.
If the intention were to prove, by the ronin's eventual defeat in the last scene, that Chinese swordplay is indeed better, it failed to do so. After a score of victories against China's best, the ronin's defeat by someone with extra special training was not all that amazing. The ronin was outnumbered throughout, would seem to have been an ordinary masterless samurai rather than an exceptional example, leaving us to wonder what a specially trained samurai would have done in the final duel.
The scriptwriter may have been subconsciously in awe of Japanese martial arts, & Japanese culture generally, while comparatively jaded about Kung fu. Even ordinary sake is given the awesome power of completely boggling the brains of the hero, after one tiny cup.
The film is populated by stock characters, & too many of them. The "Seven Tigers" are wiped out in Scene One. A famous, retired fighting master attempts vengeance in Scene Two & is likewise exterminated. This continues for quite a while before any lasting protagonist is introduced, leaving us mostly to identify with the villains.
The secondary villain is a Japanese woman with bad taste in kimono, who has the ability to disappear in a pinch. This gives her an obviously unfair advantage, but she's a strong swordfighter anyway.
There is a Standard Chinese Swordswoman Heroine as well. She is never developed as an individual character (nobody is) but she's a superb fighter.
A "message" is delivered by the filmmakers: The evil Japanese swordswoman is eager for a little sexual play with an impressive swordsman; but the Chinese heroine is so pure-minded she's utterly sexless. This attitude is a bit annoying, encountered in many Chinese costume pictures of the 1960s through 1980s, wherein "Good" swordswomen are virginal & "bad" swordswomen have physical desires. The director who reliably contradicted that priggish norm was King Hu, whose heroine in A Touch of Zen (1971) falls in love, rolls in the sack, has an illegitimate kid, but remains throughout a strong & noble swordswoman.
Duel With Samurai entertains in part because die-hard Asian action film fans have lowered our expectations. If we dared to look at the film seriously, we'd find it weaker than most such films for sundry reasons. It never develops a likeable outstanding hero. The fellow passed off as a hero appears too late in the story, vanishes too soon, then pops up again when everything but the final duel is over. An antagonist without a protagonist is only half a film.
The film is also hampered by excessive use of typical absurdities: lots of "flying" which makes the children go "Wow!' & the adults "snicker-snicker." Equally silly "hopping" off springboards from one set to the next, looking like jackrabbits skipping across the countryside. And magical elements which have no intelligible context. Shaolin epics explain supernatural powers as part of the mystic Shaolin training; but there's no such explanation in Duel with Samurai, where one character can vanish at will & float up into the sky, & others can leap long distances with their arms stretched in front of them like Superman.
This film could've been twice as exciting with half as many fight-scenes leaving time to develop a logical context & coherent plot. But as a rarity generally available only on the pirate or "grey market," it's not so disappointing that no one should bother tracking it down.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl