Duelist Film Review Header

Duelist                                                                                      Duelist Film Poster

Release Date: 08th September 2005 (South Korea)

Running Time: 111 mins.

Director: Lee Myung-se

Writer: Lee Myung-se, Lee Hae-jyung

Starring: Ha Ji-won, Gang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Song Young-chang, Yun Ju-sang, Do Yong-gu

Duelist marks my first experience of a Korean historical film. At first disorientating, once I surrendered to the film I found myself in an intoxicating dream.

Korea under the late Joseon Dynasty is facing the threat of counterfeit money destabilising the economy. Detective Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and her partner Detective Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) are investigating the source of this problem but their investigation will reveal much more than standard criminality as they track down the source whilst duelling with a beautiful swordsman named Sad Eyes (Gang Dong-won) who is out to protect the counterfeiting operation. Namsoon will have to confront this mysterious man and the fact that with every duel they have, the two are falling increasingly in love with each other.

The first twenty minutes of the film are packed with so many editing and directing tricks I was scared I would be tired of what was to follow. We witness a police surveillance Namsoon (Ha Ji-won), Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) and Sad Eyes (Gang Dong-won) in Duelistoperation in a market which turns into stylish chaos as sword fights erupt, a horse stampedes, and people chase each other. We are bombarded with a stop/start rhythm as the film cut between characters across the market and they are captured in slow motion, freeze frames, montage, and undercranking. This reminded me of the sort of impressionistic moments that Wong Kar-Wai uses and once I made that connection I relaxed.

Like a Wong Kar-Wai film Duelist is visually splendid and highly stylised with every scene full of gorgeous colours, highly detailed and beautiful sets and costumes and acting which are just right. It all ensures that the visuals and sounds are used to convey the emotional lives and courtship of Namsoon and Sad Eyes. They exist in a hyper real reality where every colour and exaggeration is highly emphasised and they are very much aware of each other and their growing feelings. When love is blossoming the screen is full of clothes and leaves which are brightly coloured, when danger abounds the screen is reduced almost to a black and white colour scheme. Difficult conversations reminding them of their differences will see the visuals and audio for a conversation diverge as narration plays out uniformly but editing will ensure an actor occupies different physical spaces. Sometimes a romantic conversation will be played out wordlessly through a montage of earlier scenes between characters.

Although not as powerful as the films of Wong Kar-Wai the style here is very enjoyable. Watching Namsoon’s investigations into Sad Eyes turning into a playful game of hide and seek as they dash amidst gorgeous sets and using props to trick each other and pursue each other is fun.

Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and Sad Eyes (Gang Dong-won) in Duelist

The film creates a dreamlike tone which acts as the perfect stage for a stylish romance which seems to be the focus of the film as the fighting plays out more like a dance and there is never any sense of danger while the whole counterfeiting plot lacks any weight. I get the feeling that Lee Myung-se is more interested in creating a beautiful romantic carnival with a beautiful tomboy at the centre.

There are three things no one can ever predict, the eyes of a cat, the skies of late autumn, and the face of a woman Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) in Duelist

What first attracted me to the film was Ha Ji-won. A screen-cap of her captured my imagination. For me her performance and the way the director conveys the growing romance between her character and Sad Eyes are the best things about the movie.

Ha Ji-won as Namsoon is the girl of my dreams. Is that a bit much? In any case her performance as Namsoon is wonderful to follow, from the way she saunters around like an arrogant young gun, hunching her shoulders, cocking her head at an angle, growling and shouting a lot and always having a smirk as she sports a pair of knives. Amusing on the job as a cop, the way she reacts to her blossoming romance with Sad Eyes is cute. She has a wonderful presence and range of emotions and she is a wonderfully lively, playful, and beautiful actress.

Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) in Duelist

Ha Ji-Won’s excellent performance extends into the fight scenes where she shows skill and a feline grace. As I mentioned earlier, these fights are like dances, Namsoon and Sad Eyes courting each other as their blades clash. My favourite moment between the two is a night time duel where two thirds of the screen is taken up by a deep black shadow cast by a tall wall. Namsoon walks through the light. Sad Eye emerges from the darkness and merges back into it. The two clash and the shine of the blades is the only thing we see as the two duck in and out of the shadows. Their battle then shifts into a tango complete with passionate music and movements, the two up close, their breath mingling, Namsoon showing a bit of cleavage. Playful but very sexy.

Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and Sad Eyes (Gang Dong-won) in Duelist

While the narrative surrounding the investigation into counterfeit coins loses steam and threatens to obstruct the romance the film ends on such an enigmatic note that it rescues the film. The ending is quite fitting as Namsoon and Sad Eyes dissolve into an idealised dream. If only life were like that.

Duelist is a sumptuous delight which uses the medium of film to create a truly dreamlike romance fit for any audience. Between its visual beauty, stylish action scenes, and comedic performances, there is something to sate the appetite of anybody looking to escape reality and live an idealised fantasy.


11 thoughts on “Duelist

  1. “Ha Ji-won as Namsoon is the girl of my dreams.” Jejeje… Very cute confession you are making here! If I were I guy, I would say that too. Namsoon is awesome and Ha Ji-won is awesome as well. But since I’m a girl, I’m happy with Sad Eyes/Kang Dong-won. 🙂

    I think Duelist is very much its own film and that is precisely what I love about it. That it doesn’t follow any rules, is such a mix of things and remains enigmatic until the very end. It’s a pity you didn’t get to see it on the big screen.

    Which Wong Kar-wai films are you thinking of specifically here? (I haven’t seen any I think.) I can only compare Duelist to some other wu xia films (Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon and the like), which were all great but I just love the uniqueness of Duelist, and the guts the director had in making it the way he did. I don’t think it’s for every audience – I think many could get frustrated by the lack of explanations and proper narrative.

    1. Duelist had a number of eyebrow raising elements (contemporary music, mish-mash of visual techniques) but it all works because it’s delivered with such verve and it adds to the unique atmosphere of the film. I didn’t have a problem with the narrative but there was a scene which I misinterpreted. Nothing major and it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the film because by that point I wasn’t viewing it for the crime drama.

      In terms of the Wong Kar-Wai films I was thinking of Ashes of Time and Chungking Express. The former is wu xia film with very impressionistic scenes. I highly recommend Chungking Express. It’s just wonderful, so romantic, poetic, and beautiful.

      And yes, Namsoon is awesome 🙂

  2. You are so quick with your reviews by the way! Makes me feel guilty because I haven’t managed to finish off any this week yet! Working on Atmen (Breathing) and Akira and Oblivion Island.

    1. I probably have more time on my hands than you. Writing the synopsis and film details is the easy bit. I then transcribed the notes I made while watching an OTT slice of 80’s anime. Next came the screen-caps so I rewatched parts of the movie. Fortunately I wasn’t doing an existential reading or comparing it in depth to other films or anything else complicated (I sometimes wonder if any of that actually works :P).

      I’m looking forward to your review of Akira!

      1. What do you do to have times on your hand? Yeah, I don’t have a lot of time between studying, working part time and probably way too many voluntary positions (for academia). Plus, I’m ever a very slow writer and always end up doing quite a bit of reading about the films I review.

        Akira is a bit of a challenge, because there are a plethora of reviews out there and I don’t just want to write another one. I’ve got two paragraphs but I’m still thinking on how to approach it all.

      2. I study a lot and work part time as well. Slow writer, eh? Of the two of us I’d say your reviews are clear and concise while mine can be wayward – so that slow writing pays off.

      3. Still meant to say ありがとう and 감사합니다 for the compliment 🙂

        I don’t think your reviews are “wayward” though.

    1. It’s a stunning film that sticks with me.

      You’re not the only one who wishes they could live/work as vibrantly and honestly as Lee Myung-se. That’s why I keep writing so much! He’s a veteran at the directing game and was experienced when he made this so there’s still time for us!

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