The “evil Japanese ronin/ninja/samurai screws with righteous Chinese martial artists just for the funsies” plot deserves a long retirement from the employment of Chinese film makers. It’s been used to good effect in films like The Valiant Ones (King Hu, 1975) and Heroes of the East (Lau Kar-Leung, 1979), but the unqualified vilification of the Japanese also motivates films like the spectacularly silly Ninja: The Final Duel (Robert Tai, 1986) and the spectacularly bad Great General (Ting Chung, 1978), a movie so bad that I’ve owned it for years without ever making it through more than thirty minutes of its ugly blandness. Needless to say, the disparity between quality and crap gets pretty wide between movies with this plot/theme.
Gam Sing-Yan’s 1971 film, Duel with Samurai, deserves credit for being one of the earlier films with this plot, following The Chinese Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, 1970) but released before the most widely seen example of the Chinese-vs.-Japanese plot, Fists of Fury. In Duel with Samurai, a ronin played by Chan Hung Lit shows up more or less unexpectedly in China and starts killing off the usual assortment of kung fu movie stock characters. In fact, the first thirty minutes consists of nothing more than Chan Hung Lit in a kimono stabbing and slashing people in traditional Chinese costumes and then doing his best evil Japanese laugh, a few times helped by his sister (Kong Ching-Ha) who is a feisty little kunoichi with disappearing/reappearing jump cut magic. We don’t even see the hero played by Kong Ban until about fifteen minutes into the movie, at which point it settles into a more routine training, dueling, and double-crossing affair.
While watching Duel with Samurai, I couldn’t help but think of Duel of the Seven Tigers (Richard Yeung, 1979), mostly because they each feature the same anti-Japanese premise and a protagonist that learns multiple special techniques in order to defeat the invader. After eight years of trial and error, it’s clear that the latter boasts more intricate choreography, and that the highly trained and skilled martial artists like Phillip Ko Fei, Cliff Lok, Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan are more able to perform such choreography than Kong Ban, Chan Hung Lit, and Kong Ching-Ha. Duel with Samurai frequently undercuts its marginally credible fight scenes with wire work and practical effects that feel unusually out of place for such a flick. But at least it does the good deed of including some female nudity, courtesy of Kong Ching-Ha’s body double.
If anything, it’s interesting to see just how little changed in Hong Kong movies of this type. The Chinese women (represented here by Lee Shu, a generally agreeable actress playing a regrettably boring character) in such stories are almost inhumanly chaste, the Japanese women are sluts. Need proof? Take a look at Chang Cheh’s first take on this theme in Chinese Super Ninjas, where the only woman present in the entire movie is a kunoichi spy who uses her sexuality to distract one hero, later throwing herself at his brother who kills her without much in the way of emotion.
The costuming, the settings, the actors, and the production/technical methods might be considerably different, but the heart, and one assumes the purpose of such movies remain largely the same. They provide cultural revenge for the Chinese against the Japanese for atrocities that remain very fresh in the minds of many Chinese people, just as the acts of the Germans in the 20th century have not escaped the memories of many in the Occidental entertainment world. There is possibly something cathartic in seeing a Chinese hero destroy the icon of Japanese warrior culture after said icon heaps tremendous abuse upon the Chinese people with whom he comes into contact -- the Chinese hero getting revenge that those genuinely victimized by Japanese military in recent history were denied.
Granted, it’s Chan Hung Lit's angry, self-centered ronin who comes off as a badass. I don’t think that the audiences in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China much cared, though.
It reminds me of Stephen Sommers’ recent G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, in which the most competent members of an international military force funded and founded by the USA are all foreigners, yet the annoying American military guys save the day through some combination of luck/deus ex machina/confusing lapse of internal logic/manifest destiny. The flag waving doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t need to.
As an early seventies sword flick, Duel with Samurai is passable. The fighting is decent, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. If you like such movies, you’ll like this one well enough. There are people who will watch this one just because of its relative obscurity, but they should occupy themselves with the search for the director Gam Sing-Yan's more obscure and wacky movies, like Fairy, Fox and Ghost (1970) and Sea Gods and Ghosts (1978) which are infamously strange fantasy kung fu films.