The Duelist (2005) Movie Review

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Approximately 8 minutes into Myung-se Lee’s “The Duelist”, it suddenly occurred to me (accompanied by a feeling of dread) that the film’s star, Ji-won Ha was channeling her character from “Slave Love” (aka “100 Days with Mr. Arrogant”), except this time she had a sword. That really is the best way to describe Myung-se Lee’s highly anticipated martial arts/period film, a combination Keystone cops comedy (complete with under cranking camerawork), a shallow Teen Romance, and predictably heavy Asian melodrama in the final third. If the first 10 minutes doesn’t immediately signal that “The Duelist” is anything but the traditional martial arts movie set in Chosun Korea as the film’s trailers have suggested, then an impromptu rugby scrum using a bag of money that breaks out 5 minutes later, all set to a blaring orchestra score, will surely convince you that this isn’t what you expected when you bought your ticket.

“The Duelist” opens with a story told by a blacksmith that doesn’t go anywhere, before moving onto the film proper — an outdoor market being staked out by cops Namsoon (Ji-won Ha) and her much older partner Ahn (the venerable Sung-kee Ahn). Their targets are counterfeiters presently meeting with crooks (to sell the fake money, one presumes), when they are interrupted by a masked killer who goes by the moniker Sad Eyes (Dong-won Kang), named so because, well, he has sad eyes. Upon locking horns with Sad Eyes, Namsoon falls instantly in love, thus begins an investigation into a counterfeiting plot that could overthrow the Government and a cat-and-mouse game between the tomboy detective and the sad eyed killer.

Coming into “The Duelist” based on the trailers is like going to a car dealership with expectations of buying a Lexus, only to get a bright and colorful clown car with 20 clowns stuffed in the trunk instead. If you were expecting a martial arts movie, then perish the thought right now. This is ballroom dancing where the participants just happen to have shiny metal things that they like to bang against each other’s shiny metal things because it looks good. No one is going to die until the inevitable (and predictably melodramatic) ending, so there’s little need to invest in suspense before then. In fact, Myung-se Lee has as much subtlety about selling the fights as dances as Ji-won Ha has playing a comedic part.

A major problem with “The Duelist” is its central core, which is little more than a shallow, poorly conceived, and utterly unconvincing Teen Romance between the two leads. One could read more into this constant tete-a-tete between Sad Eyes and Namsoon, but then you would be reaching. A lot. The characters are paper thin, a trait not helped by their overly cartoonish nature. How an actor of Sung-kee Ahn’s caliber ever allowed himself to be talked into playing such a goofball character (complete with a fast, whiny pitch!) is beyond comprehension. As for Ji-won Ha, she seems to have a predilection for playing such roles, and it’s open to debate why, because the young woman has no comic skills, and watching her do “comedy” is like pulling teeth. With a sledgehammer.

The film’s only point of salvation are the visuals, of which Lee indulges in so much that one almost believes he made the film simply to show off, and not to make a coherent or believable story. “The Duelist” is almost always fantastic to look at, and it’s not hard to imagine Lee sweating nights in bed and days on the set about getting the color schemes and lighting of every scene just right. The Koreans have always been adept with film aesthetics, but the work in “The Duelist” goes above and beyond the call of duty. If you turn the sound off and fast-forward through the comedy bits, “The Duelist” is quite wonderful to behold.

Alas, you don’t just look at a movie, you have to listen and follow its narrative, and that’s where “The Duelist” falls short. Painfully so, in fact. The film is simply excruciating to listen to, and the story is of a chaotic, “Let’s toss in a major plot point here because things seem to be sagging” sort. How the cops ever linked Sad Eyes to a major political figure is one of those astounding leaps of logic that can only exist in movies. But then again, who would ever make the mistake of trying to link logic with “The Duelist” after the nonsense at the outdoor market set piece in the beginning?

I’m stopping just short of saying that “The Duelist” is complete garbage, because as mentioned, the film is visually impressive, and the final 30 minutes is an indication of what the film could have been. Not surprisingly, the final 30 minutes is almost entirely devoid of the forced comedy that has been rampant throughout the movie, electing instead for an operatic soundtrack that allows the visuals to dominate every inch and moment onscreen.

At just under two hours, “The Duelist” feels much, much longer. Then again, it could just be the intolerable “comedy” and see-through teeny bopper romance that helped to destroy any sense of wonderment the visuals should have inspired. To compare, think of Zhang Yimou’s wonderfully lyrical and equally visually astounding “Hero” as an adult movie, and “The Duelist” as a film for the under-13 MTV “TRL” crowd. There’s that much of a difference.

Myung-se Lee (director) / Myung-se Lee, Hae-jyung Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-won Ha …. Namsoon
Sung-kee Ahn …. Detective Ahn
Dong-won Kang …. Sad Eyes
Young-chang Song ….Minister of Defence


Buy The Duelist on DVD

Author: Nix

Editor/Writer at BeyondHollywood.com. Likes: long walks on the beach and Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic movies. Dislikes: 3D, shaky cam, and shaky cam in 3D. Got a site issue? Wanna submit Movie/TV news? Or to email me in regards to anything on the site, you can do so at nix (at) beyondhollywood.com.
  • simplesyrup

    Yeah, saw the movie just recently in the year 2008…and I was entertained. I love the facial expressions of Ha Ji won and while I could be snoot and try hard in finding flaws in everything…..I realize, it’s just a movie. The only thing I couldn’t take…was the drunked parts…other than that, the film as a whole was just fun.

  • simplesyrup

    Yeah, saw the movie just recently in the year 2008…and I was entertained. I love the facial expressions of Ha Ji won and while I could be snoot and try hard in finding flaws in everything…..I realize, it’s just a movie. The only thing I couldn’t take…was the drunked parts…other than that, the film as a whole was just fun.

  • DuelistIsTheBestMovieEver

    Nix, you’re review is complete bullshit! just because it didnt meet ur expectations of a typical martial arts movie with deaths (wtf?) it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great movie….I think the producer did an awesome job integrating all three of them together: martial arts, comedy, and a sad, impossible love, something unsusual and new in Korean cinematography…furthermore, there is a deeper meaning to the movie, and one needs a higher thinking to undesrtand it…so don’t judge it just from your first impression!

    P.S.and yeah, the martial arts in the movie is exactly GORGEOUS because of the dance elements in it!

  • DuelistIsTheBestMovieEver

    Nix, you’re review is complete bullshit! just because it didnt meet ur expectations of a typical martial arts movie with deaths (wtf?) it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great movie….I think the producer did an awesome job integrating all three of them together: martial arts, comedy, and a sad, impossible love, something unsusual and new in Korean cinematography…furthermore, there is a deeper meaning to the movie, and one needs a higher thinking to undesrtand it…so don’t judge it just from your first impression!

    P.S.and yeah, the martial arts in the movie is exactly GORGEOUS because of the dance elements in it!

  • LovedDuelist

    The Duelist may not be worthy of The Academy Award Best Picture, but it was certainly not as devoid of depth as you described. With its picturesque scenes, well-thought out soundtrack and fabulous camera work, I thought it was a movie I would recommend to other people. I must say I do not agree with your assessment the love story was juvenile. Though much is left unsaid, it is no less a touching and timeless plot. I appreciated that the director did not spell everything out as if the audience was incapable of inference. The gaps are filled with what the audience would imagine happened, which adds a personal element to the film. One final point, I think one should always look for the bring points of a movie instead of focusing on the negative, and letting that negate the whole movie.

  • LovedDuelist

    The Duelist may not be worthy of The Academy Award Best Picture, but it was certainly not as devoid of depth as you described. With its picturesque scenes, well-thought out soundtrack and fabulous camera work, I thought it was a movie I would recommend to other people. I must say I do not agree with your assessment the love story was juvenile. Though much is left unsaid, it is no less a touching and timeless plot. I appreciated that the director did not spell everything out as if the audience was incapable of inference. The gaps are filled with what the audience would imagine happened, which adds a personal element to the film. One final point, I think one should always look for the bring points of a movie instead of focusing on the negative, and letting that negate the whole movie.

  • cindy

    I don’t like the way the director tells the story. It makes the story hard to understand. But I like its artistic way. It’s a beautiful movie.Especially the beautiful swordman. He is breathlessly beautiful. The music is beautiful.

  • cindy

    I don’t like the way the director tells the story. It makes the story hard to understand. But I like its artistic way. It’s a beautiful movie.Especially the beautiful swordman. He is breathlessly beautiful. The music is beautiful.

  • Ben

    To a certain extent, I agree with the review. It’s really quite shallow and sometimes incoherent movie. This is made more evident as I’ve seen DaMo (Ha Ji-won), the TV series which this film was based on. The comparison with Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” is also quite accurate. But I kind’a expected it to be a shallow movie with highlights on artistry. Thus I feel that the money I spent was all worth the audio and visual entertainment I got. I won’t mind watching it again. Fact is, I’ve seen it about 3 times on DVD, I still couldn’t understand some of the scenes, their relevance or just exactly what it was about but nonetheless, I still enjoyed it. And, I loved the music, still listen to the OST every now and then.

  • Ben

    To a certain extent, I agree with the review. It’s really quite shallow and sometimes incoherent movie. This is made more evident as I’ve seen DaMo (Ha Ji-won), the TV series which this film was based on. The comparison with Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” is also quite accurate. But I kind’a expected it to be a shallow movie with highlights on artistry. Thus I feel that the money I spent was all worth the audio and visual entertainment I got. I won’t mind watching it again. Fact is, I’ve seen it about 3 times on DVD, I still couldn’t understand some of the scenes, their relevance or just exactly what it was about but nonetheless, I still enjoyed it. And, I loved the music, still listen to the OST every now and then.