When one thinks of a Shaw Brothers martial arts film directed by Chang Cheh, Ching Dynasty era swordplay and fanciful bloodletting comes to mind. But in 1971, one of the year’s most popular films next to Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss was Cheh’s Duel of Fists, a modern actioner set in the world of professional Muay Thai boxing. No amount of praise can do this unique film justice. Ti Lung and his fellow cast members are phenomenal and the gritty action will knock you flat!
David Chiang is Fan Ke, an engineering architect in Hong Kong who follows his ailing father’s request to find a lost elder brother in Thailand. All Fan Ke has is a childhood picture of his brother with a distinctive tattoo on his shoulder and a tip that he is now a professional Muay Thai boxer. Ti Lung plays his brother Wen-lie, who is being strong-armed by a crooked boxing promoter named Qiang-ren (Chan Sing). As Fan Ke seeks out boxing matches at various venues around Bangkok during their Songkran Festival (Water Festival), he meets his brother and the two become friends, initially without recognizing each other. Fan Ke clues in just as his brother enters the ring to fight the reigning champion, a killer named Cannon (Guk Fung). A grueling match ensues with Wen-lie’s girlfriend waiting outside in tears and Fan Ke ready to jump into the ring to save his brother. Wen-lie defeats the killer, but discovers that a friend has been kidnapped by Qiang-ren. Fan Ke joins Wen-lie in taking on Qiang-ren and his men in an elaborate and bloody finale worthy of Chang Cheh’s sterling reputation as an action filmmaker.
Duel of Fists is a remarkable film that pushes the envelope on hard-hitting action and realism, especially for a 1971 release. This may be the first Hong Kong film to portray Muay Thai boxing to any degree and both the filmmakers and actors spare no expense in presenting the sport in all its brutal glory. Ti Lung proves his metal as a versatile action star who trained diligently in Muay Thai prior to filming. His hard work pays off with one of the best action performances of his career. Without padding, wires, trampolines, or any other film industry gadgets, the Thai boxers simply trade what looks like mostly realistic and painful punches, kicks, and knee jabs. Guk Fung (AKA Ku Feng) also shines as the film’s villainous Cannon. Both dressed only in boxing shorts as opposed to the usual period costuming, you really get to see just how fit these guys were in their prime. Still quite young, Ti Lung would put on more muscle in years to come, but he still looks quite capable.
Not to be outdone, David Chiang is representing for Chinese kung fu and does so with his usual flair and devilish grin. Chang Cheh cannot help but allow him the ability to use the deadliest of moves, shoving his hand right into an opponent’s chest at the end of the film. But unlike Cheh’s period films, this sends the rest of the baddies running for dear life in what is a more plausible response to witnessing such an act. This final fight with Chan Sing proves to be the highpoint for Chiang and kung fu, while Ti Lung’s earlier victory over Guk Fung in the ring is the highpoint for Muay Thai.
Both martial arts styles are evenly represented with excellent action scenes throughout the film. And unlike the swordplay films of the era, Duel of Fists has one of the more accessible plots that stays on track and presents a struggle that actually draws you in. Early in the film, Cannon begins the process of beating an opponent to death, as Ti Lung and Chiang watch helplessly. It becomes a bit ridiculous when the bloodied fighter refuses to stay down after being floored on numerous occasions. But after the fighter’s death, his brother rushes the ring and just when this fellow is about to join his brother in the afterlife, Chiang leaps into the ring and begins to clobber Cannon until the police step in.
The martial arts action in this film is much more intense in a real world setting, and it makes one wonder why Shaw Brothers didn’t produce a lot more modern action films. The Teahouse and the sequel Big Brother Cheng are two other great examples. The obvious answer may be the issue of firearms. It comes up once in Duel of Fists, but Cheh handles it well by making the user a coward afraid of the repercussions of killing.
The other reason why most SB films are period ones is that creating historical sets was easier than filming on location. This film was one of the first major Hong Kong productions to take their cameras, not only off their own expansive Clearwater Bay lot, but outside of the territory. Many shots of Bangkok are included, but the camera panning and zooming is often shaky, which indicates one of the limitations of shooting outdoors without tracking equipment. In these scenes, there are also no close-ups of the actors. This presents an all too obvious contrast between controlled set shots and the outdoor shots where they were obviously trying to draw less attention to the actors. An even more glaring contrast occurs when scenes change from outdoor location shooting to indoor sets meant to look like they are outside. SB used fake outdoor sets all the time, but the transitions usually looked better between forested areas, versus cities. Another observation is the limited use of a musical score. The film opens and ends with only the sounds of the city. In between there is very little music, save for the tunes that traditionally accompany Thai boxing matches and a Beethoven-like riff that reoccurs often. I generally wouldn’t consider this to be a negative factor, but some poor use of what music is present leads me to believe that the filmmakers skimped on the score.
Now do yourself a favor and overlook every technical gripe that I just presented. Duel of Fists otherwise hits all the right notes in the area that really counts, martial arts action. With very few films depicting Muay Thai to any level of authenticity, this is a rare gem, especially when you get to see kung fu legends like Ti Lung and Guk Fung putting in such a terrific effort. Buy it, rent it, or borrow it. You can thank me later.REVIEW: Duel of Fists (1971),
Chang Cheh • David Chiang • Duel of Fists (1971) • Muay Thai • Shaw Brothers • Ti Lung