A tale of political intrigue The Duelist is told from the perspective of a group of undercover police officers in historical Korea. Ahn Sung-Ki - one of Korea's most dependable actors who many on these shores will recognize from his part in the stellar Musa: The Warrior - is the wise senior leader of the group, Ha Jiwan the headstrong and firey tempered Detective Namsoo. When a mysterious masked man scatters bags of counterfeit coins into a crowd at a town fair - nearly triggering a riot - the young female detective sets off in pursuit, engages him in combat and catches a brief glimpse of his true face. Thus begins a cat and mouse game that plays out on several levels. Who would have the means to produce so many counterfeit coins? What do they stand to gain by destabilizing the country's economy? Who was the mysterious masked man and why does Namsoo find him so compelling?
First, the good. The cinematography is simply stunning. This is a gorgeously staged and shot film. The sets are simply enormous and finely detailed and are captured in all their glory. The colors are brilliant but Lee reserves his true love for the shadows, the interplay of light and dark. He is obviosuly aware that what you don't see can be every bit as impressive as what you do and he uses the shadows to his very great advantage.
Lee's approach to the martial arts sequences is also startlingly original. Many often talk of violence as being a dance, but Lee goes a step further and makes that literally the case, setting his wildly kinetic fight sequences to pronounced dance rhythms and employing them as a sort of courtship or mating ritual between Namsoo and her un-named opponent. He makes explicit the implicit link between sex and violence in a new and striking way. Also worth noting here is the magnetic performance of the male lead, Gang Donwon, who manages to convery a great deal with very little effort.
Lee is also admirably willing to experiemtn with camera techniques, often shooting reaction shots as a progressive series of stills and employing a fistful of other techniques to capture his scenes and characters. This is, quite honestly, a film unlike any other you may have seen.
And now, the not so good. First, the genre issues. Cross genre films are very likely the hardest to pull off successfully as each genre has its own conventions and requirements that must be honored without detracting from the others, and Lee simply misses that all important balance. We're not talking about a drama with some quality comic moments here, we're talking about a film that is one moment a high minded art film and the next a Keystone Kops styled bumbling slapstick, right down to the ramped up camera speeds. There is the blacksmith always telling his luridly sexual stories, the admittedly fun spy themed introduction of the undercover unit complete with Bond style musical accompaniment, and the goofy Saturday morning serial nature of much of the early action. The elements simply never gel and while the comedy quotient decreases dramatically as the film goes on you quickly realize that Lee spent so much time on the first act goofing around that he failed to properly establish any of his lead characters. There's simply nobody to carry you through the experience with Ahn grossly underused and Ha playing everything in the broadest possible terms, either screaming or slouching or crying or giving off a very unconvincing swagger. There's no subtlety to her work, which makes her budding forbidden romance remarkably unconvincing.
The Duelist has at least five different films struggling to emerge. It is loaded with eye candy and has some spectacular set pieces but on the whole that struggle proves its undoing. Promising, but ultimately unfulfilling.
Starring: Ha Ji-Won, Kang Dong-Won, Ahn Seong-Gi
Director: Lee Myeong-Se
Genre: Action, History, Thriller, Drama, Martial
Production: Wellmade Entertainment, Production M
Distribution: Korea Pictures
Country: South Korea