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 operation 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.