Sunday, February 4, 2024


This is part of a series I started when working on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, reviewing wuxia films and discussing their relevance to tabletop RPGs. I am a little rusty on these written reviews and my last one was a little long winded, so I am going to aim for brevity on this one. 

If you want to bring wuxia to your RPG table, try Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades or Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. 

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.  

This review contains many spoilers.

NOTE: I did a video review of this movie a few years ago, but wanted to give it a proper written review. If any opinions about the movie are different here it is because that was done seven or eight years ago and I have made a point of not rewatching it for this.  


Duel for Gold is a 1971 Chor Yuen film, staring Ivy Ling Po, Wang Ping, Chin Han, Chang Yi and Lo Lieh. Centered around a bank heist, the film's protagonists are all greed-driven scoundrels revealed to be more depraved as the story progresses. It features some remarkable lightness kung fu effects for the time and is also notable for its gruesome violence. Despite this gore, the movie is visually stunning and tells a great character based story.

What I like most about Duel for Gold, are the characters. This is one of the more cynical and jaded wuxia films, and none of the characters manage to be sympathetic in the least. That is not a criticism. I like how committed the movie is to making every single character irredeemable. The movie may give you occasional flashes of humanity, make you feel bad for a character for a moment, but then that person does something that evaporates any good will you had towards them. 

Duel for Gold takes its time revealing the depths of the protagonists' immorality. Initially most of them don't seem so bad, perhaps deceptive, playful, even a little criminal, but they appear to have connections to other people, they appear to love and have desires that go beyond material wealth and self aggrandizement. As the movie advances however, the characters shed any virtue and humanity, revealing them all to be illusions. They are the opposite of a character like White Fox from my previous review, who arguably was shedding her fetters over the course of an arduous theft. Here the thieves only become more rooted to material possessions and any connections or bonds they form are shallow, weakening in the face of enormous wealth. 

The first half of the film is about a a bank robbery. This part is quite exciting. At first we think there are just two thieves: Yu Yen and Yu Ying, sister acrobats who feign being wounded so they can gain easy access to the Fu Lai Money Bureau. But soon we discover another thief eyeing the bank's gold, then another, and finally a fifth. There is something about the way in which we learn about each of the characters and their motives that works well for me. I also like that the movie dwells a bit on the details and procedures of the bank. It does a good job of establishing how impregnable this place is.

The latter portion of the film is about the conflict over the gold once it is obtained, and I think this is where the movie goes from being good to great. There is plenty of fighting, death and action, but also a lot of dialogue. The relationships between the characters are complex, but unlike some other Chor Yuen movies, it is never confusing. And even though these characters reveal themselves to be unsympathetic, we do feel for them as we puzzle through their scheming against one another. 

The action is flowing, dance-like, and gory at times. If you like Chor Yuen fair, this has fights you will enjoy. The aim isn't to create distinct styles for each character, though they do each possess things that separate them from the others, but rather to create a sense of beauty through collaborative movement. I love this aspect of Chor Yuen movies, but I clarify what I mean by it here because I know some people prefer other styles of martial arts choreography.

I do like how the film punctuates the grace of many of the fights with surprising bloodshed. It isn't that the movie is excessively violent all the way through. But there are some creative death scenes that could give Friday the 13th a run for its money. And while it may seem gratuitous or for shock value, I find it is effective at hammering home just how ruthless greed has made the characters. 

I also enjoy that banter plays a role in the exchanges. Chor Yuen often weaves dialogue between sword strikes effectively, where whole relationships will form over the course of a battle. Here the  repartee has a nice edge to it. I particularly like when Yu Yen explains why she is called the Thousand Hands Goddess Heroine Meng after delivering a lethal blow. But there are many instances of dialogue and action flowing together perfectly. 

Chor Yuen always makes gorgeous looking movies but I have a special fondness for movies from this period in his filmmaking. This and Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan are two of my favorite Chor Yuen movies because of how he fills the space with the actors profiles and facial features. And the look of the film making enhances a number of the themes. For example he makes a point of emphasizing the beauty of the Yu sisters in early frames of the film, and this feels like an intentional contrast with their internal ugliness. And I think viewers are meant to be lulled by this, slow to accept just how evil they are until it simply can't be denied. 

In addition to the action described above, there is a great deal of emphasis on lightness kung fu, which makes sense for a film about a robbery. Not only do we get a solid opening sequence where the Yu sisters perform their acrobatics to a dazzled crowd, but we even have a makeshift bamboo forest duel in the middle of a city street when one character shoots bamboo trunks into the ground and a fight takes place atop the leaves. 

While Duel for Gold is a great movie on its own, it is also a perfect film for any GM thinking of running a heist or bank robbery scenario. It also should serve nicely for NPC inspiration. 

You get a real sense of the physical layout of the bank, this movie provides clear understanding of their security procedures, a sense of their organizational structure and the role of a bank in this society. Personally I found this very useful. A GM may want to do more than rely on a movie and learn about banking systems in various dynasties, but I think for most campaigns, this will give you a solid handle for presenting something like the money bureau in the film, which has lots of gaming potential. 

In terms of NPCs, there is a lot to take inspiration from here. The techniques the characters use are just one avenue to explore. But also in terms of motivation, I think these types of characters will serve a GM well. Because they are ruthless and motivated by greed, they make for good NPCs that can produce conflict in a campaign. 

For techniques, the ability to shoot bamboo shafts into the ground so they effectively form a bridge is a cool idea. This gave me the notion of a technique for Ogre Gate that uses the Trade (Wood) skill or Survival (Wilderness) to makeshift such objects into something useful, potentially doing damage if you hit someone in the process. A similar Signature Ability could work for Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades. In the movie it did not create a fully formed bridge, but that the characters then used lightness kung fu to walk atop the shafts, inspired me to think this way. 

I also would love to explore the acrobatics at the start of the movie. I already have a lot of Qinggong abilities in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, but things like balancing in the air on the tip of a sword, with the tip of a sword, could be an interesting technique for either show or stopping damage from a fall. It also gave me the idea of a suit of Kung Fu techniques not intended for combat, but meant more for performance, stuff that would draw on things like Talent (Dance) and Athletics. I have players trying to impress important people in the martial world all the time, so even if these techniques had zero combat application, I could still see them being used often. 
Duel for Gold is definitely worth watching. On the whole I quite recommend the movie to anyone interested in wuxia, particularly if the additional crime genre elements are intriguing to you. And it is especially good if you like movies that focus on more nefarious characters like the Hateful Eight. Unfortunately it is hard to find now. It is sad because I recommend this movie a lot to people but in most cases there is no way for them to see it. It is possible that there may be used copies available somewhere or that it will eventually be included in a boxed set. 

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