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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