Veteran South Korean Director Lee Myung-se’s take on stylized action cinema follows the trend set by artistic epics such as Hero. With vivid visuals that envelope the entirety of this tale, and an unusually modern soundtrack for a film set in Joseon-era Korea, the Duelist has undoubtedly triumphed in the aesthetics department, but does it lack substance elsewhere?
The film begins somewhat confusingly with a vulgar tale being narrated over tempestuous weather by a common blacksmith. Reaching the climax of the blacksmith’s uncouth anecdote, the scene quickly switches to a daytime market, which is bustling with everyday life.
Namsoon (Ha Ji-won), a police detective, and her superior officer, Detective Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), are unwittingly patrolling the markets in order to uncover leads to a counterfeit money ring. Unbeknownst to them, a masked swordsman (Kang Dong-won), whom seemingly entertains the baying crowds with his graceful swordsmanship, kills a government official who was carrying the official currency plate.
Noticed by Namsoon, the mysterious swordsman escapes when a cart carrying counterfeit coins crashes revealing the tainted currency to the general public, who generally could not care less whether the coins are real, but run riot to obtain them. Fleeing in the ensuing chaos, the swordsman is pursued by Namsoon. She eventually catches up, and succeeds in holding her own in the proceeding duel, slicing off a part of his mask and revealing one of his eyes. An image of this sad eye burns in her mind before the swordsman escapes her clutches.
Following this revelation, Detective Ahn and his squad attempt to quell the inevitable hyper-inflation which has impacted their local economy due to counterfeit coins spreading among the public. They suspect a conspiracy within the inner sanctums of the government when the swordsman is seen exiting the manor of the Defence Minister (Song Young-chang).
After another pursuit, Namsoon duels the swordsman again at night and is enthralled by his skill and mastery with his sword. Feelings of curiosity and wonderment enter her mind as she is sent undercover to infiltrate the Defence Minister’s home to investigate. Namsoon soon uncovers the conspiracy surrounding the counterfeit money ring and the humanity of the mysterious duellist. Her emotions begin to shroud her assignment, as feelings of intimacy grow between her and the sombre duellist…
What is defiantly apparent from the very beginning of the film is the peculiar visuals. Everything from the unusual composition of shots, striking and vivid colours and quirky special effects – typical of Asian cinema – is ready and waiting for the viewer. If you are a fan of interesting cinematography, then the Duelist is more than willing to whet that appetite in terms of general tone. The setting feels lush and lively for historic Korea, but can be slightly ruined by scenes that are a tad too dark.
Music also plays a pivotal role, with the filmmakers choosing an overly modern backing track for Middle Ages Korea. This may sound slightly comedic, but when you hear that heavy guitar riff play over an action sequence, you can’t help but think that this was an incredibly smart idea. The chosen audio also helps the film’s tone dip slightly into other genres, an example being the smooth jazz notes giving us that film noir feel.
Aesthetically, things are fresh and appealing; however, whilst these factors are, without a doubt, the Duelist’s strong points, they inexplicably mask the lack of substance.
It seems the filmmakers were compromised by the choice between stunning and captivating visuals and a truly developed story.
From the get go, the flashy intro seems to be in there purely to confuse. The story told at the beginning adds absolutely nothing to the main plotline. Understandably, this could be intentional for various reasons, but it is tricks like this that plague the rest of the film. For instance, the quick, almost sudden transitions between contrasting scenes break everything into small chunks that feel pointless, at times – incorporated purely so the director can flex those visual effects muscles again. These breaks mean there is no natural flow to the plotline and can make it feel like you have missed a whole chapter of the story. This sporadic route to storytelling is indeed interesting, but it detracts from the plot, and makes it extremely hard to keep track of characters who do not have the most developed of personalities.
There are long bouts in this film where no dialogue at all is spoken and you are forced to watch scenes enriched with slow motion and strobe effects, which can be interesting the first few times, but quickly tire. Action sequences are particular rife with these effects, where it seems the potential for an epic scene was available but not pursued. It’s from choices such as these, where the criticism of a severe lack of substance stands, which in turn is the cause for such underdeveloped characters and plot.
The actors do their best to augment their given characters with personality and life, but there is simply not much they can actually do since their personas lack any depth or back-story. The romance element incorporated between the Duelist and Namsoon seems dull and lifeless, lacking any sort of feasible chemistry.
It seems the filmmakers were compromised by the choice between stunning and captivating visuals and a truly developed story with characters you can empathize with. Lee Myung-se has chosen the former and set his sights on creating this visual masterpiece; an art house flick parading in clothes made for action and drama that wouldn’t look out of place playing on loop in an art gallery. If this was his intention, then he has succeeded, but as a standalone movie that involves swords and drama, the action sequences lack excitement and there is debatable substance in the drama.
If your pre-conceived notion based on the box art that a film titled Duelist would be a hack and slash film, with specific preference to action flicks that are jam-packed with fast paced, jaw dropping stunts and high octane action, then there is an extremely high chance that you will not enjoy this film one bit. Past the lush visuals and funky soundtrack, this is at heart an art house movie that has elements of varying genres that do not really compliment the traditional action movie well at all.
See The Film For Yourself!
Film: A Tale Of Two Sisters Release date: 22nd
November 2004 Certificate: 15 Running time: 115…
Film: The Beast Stalker Release date: 4th January
2010 Certificate: 15 Running time: 109 mins…
Film: Let The Right One In Release date: 3rd August
2009 Certificate: 15 Running time: 115 mins Director…