It's so uncommon to see a Chinese martial arts picture without any sympathetic characters -- one in which all the principal characters are rats -- that it's still shocking to find one, for me at least. And here's a Shaw Bros. production directed by Chu Yuan that seems heavily inspired by westerns -- not just contemporary spaghetti westerns, as you might expect, but the darker American "adult" westerns of the 1940s and 1950s. Duel For Gold reminded me of Duel in the Sun, not just for the title but also with its spoken prologue foredooming all the characters and its no-survivors climax, and it reminded me of the less well-known Lust For Gold, possibly the most amoral American western of its era. Whoever gave the film its English title (if it isn't a literal translation of "huo bing") may have had exactly those films in mind. There's a little bit of caper movie in it, too, if your idea of a caper is for a protagonist to massacre all his or her accomplices. The general idea seems to be that people are evil, and martial arts make them worse.
It opens playfully enough with a sister act giving an open-air show of their martial prowess. The ladies have incredible balance and superhuman strength; one can hold the whole weight of her sister's body, upside down and sword out, on the point of her own sword. The crowd's wonder turns to horror as the girls inexcusably fail to clear the prop blocks they chopped to show off their swords' sharpness out of their way as they tumble. One of the sisters manages to fall on her own sword and is taken to the local treasury for first aid. However, security guard Wen (Chun Chen) finds this accident suspicious. In China's martial world these security guards are like freelance marshals of the Old West, tough men entrusted with the wealth and property of others. Wen quickly exposes the sisters' trick; they'd staged the accident in order to case the place, where they most likely know a big stash of gold will be waiting for a big merchant. It's a good thing Wen's around, because his small army of assistants is useless against the sisters' fighting skills, while he seems capable of handling both of them at once. He drives them away, but they're only the start of his problems. Lurking in town is Teng Chi Yan, the "Long Shadow" (Lo Lieh), who simply radiates menace. Meanwhile, the sisters have help for whatever their plan may be, but they have to keep an eye on the interloper Teng Chi Yan as well.
The crooks manage to lure Wen into another fight and to injure him enough that he's out of action while the big merchant paints the town red. The merchant turns out to be an impostor, however, and one of the gang. Invited to tour the mint by obsequious officials, the impostor takes out a bunch of guards, signalling an all-out attack by the crooks' own small army of all-too expendable minions. Those the guards don't kill, the lead thieves eliminate themselves. The fewer to share the loot, the better; that principle is carried out mercilessly until lovers and sisters -- not to mention one unexpected contestant -- fight a round-robin battle in a cemetery, each fighter in turn offering a deal to his or her antagonist,only to have it rejected. And of course, we've already been told how it all turns out, though there is one blackly ironic twist left for the narrator to relate.
The final fight is a brutal affair in the "kill 'em all" fashion then prevailing around the world, and the carnage effects seem less cartoonish, more bluntly brutal, than they often appear in more heroic fare. That's some sort of tribute to Chu Yuan and the overall production design. The action is well directed and choreographed. In one impressive shot, one of the sister knocks a guard out of the frame to the right, but the camera follows his tumble and catches the other sister routing more foes. The actors are as good as English dubbing permits -- I saw this on the El Rey network -- while Lo Lieh is effortlessly good as the threatening mystery man regardless of his surrogate voice. Duel For Gold might be best described as a slapstick black comedy. Like much slapstick, it revels in transgression but makes sure to punish the transgressors at the end, lest the audience regret their thrills. It may think itself dark, but it's really fun to watch if you don't judge the characters too harshly, as fate already has.