'Damo' is a series a lot of people will know. Being quite a popular title and undoubtedly one that helped Ha Ji-won rise to fame, it is an important piece of Korean television for many reasons. 'Duelist' has some things in common with it. Both movies are based on the same manhwa and both star Ha Ji Won as the female lead. However, that might very well be where their similarities end. The format is different, one being a drama and the other a movie, but 'Duelist' being a work by Lee Myung-se means it is also an unapologetic art film. This makes it more of a fusion sageuk, as many elements, from wardrobe to the music, take creative liberty and are simply not consistent with the era the movie is set in.
'Duelist' opens with Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and Detective Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) investigating a money counterfeiting case that points to political corruption and plotting against the king. A mysterious assassin, only known throughout the film as 'Sad Eyes' (Gang Dong-won) is their only lead. Through their conflicts, Namsoon and Sad Eyes find themselves drawn to each other in a way a detective and a suspect should not be.
The premise of 'Duelist' is very simple and so is its execution and plot. Characterization is present, but it is does not go very deep in terms of backstory and development. The movie opts for a stylized type of visual narration, where characters express their feelings through movement and imagery. The characters' relationships and how they shape them and their actions is the focus. That said, due to the highly artistic nature of the film, each scene feels like a little story of its own, which can shake the consistency and coherence at times, perhaps alienating viewers a bit in the process. The events and characters mostly make sense and capture viewers' emotions, but there are times when the eccentricity of the narrative and acting style become overly theatrical and can raise an eyebrow or two amongst more mainstream-oriented viewers.
While the format does have its ups and downs, the characters and their performances fit it perfectly. Namsoon is a tomboy who acts rash and violent. Being a female detective in a Joseon setting, she has to be tough in order to be taken seriously. But she is also a girl at heart and she is not immune to her emotions. Ha Ji-won conveys both of those sides of Namsoon in a skillful, endearing and pleasant to watch manner. Sad Eyes is the biggest mystery in the film. With barely any lines and most of his actions limited to fighting, fleshing out his feelings and where he stands as a person was a tricky job, which was however accomplished, through his interactions with Namsoon and Gang Dong-won's ability for full, but subtle acting. Detective Ahn and the villain, Minister of Defense (Song Young-chang) also offer a nice polarity to the situation, Ahn being a kind father-figure to Namsoon while the Minister is a manipulator for Sad Eyes. A couple of nice cameo appearances by Yoon Joo-sang, Kim Jung-tae and others are appreciated extras.
The movie's strong points are undoubtedly its image and sound. Everything from the colors used to the way the set is lit has been meticulously crafted and has had a lot of thought put into it. Lee Myung-se uses many seemingly ill-fitting techniques in a way that somehow fits the overall style of the movie. Light and darkness play a big part in the work and also the fighting sequences, which are an art piece on their own. The chemistry between Ha Ji-won and Gang Dong-won is great, but their dance-like beautifully choreographed, executed and directed interactions are the highlight of this film's visual poetry.
The music and sound are equally impressive, featuring mesmerizing and distinctive pieces that really add to the special nature of 'Duelist'. The sound is also very involved in the storytelling. One example can be heard in a scene where Namsoon is angry. The piece starts off with hard electric guitar, creating a near cacophony as she is frantically running around. As time goes by and she gradually loses her energy, the guitar gives way to a soft piano piece, mirroring her change of mood. There is not a single element in this movie that was not tailored to Lee Myung-se's vision for it.
'Duelist' is a difficult movie to recommend. To some viewers, it will seem like a pretentious 100+ minute long music video. Just a combination of weird scenes and weird characters. To some, it will seem like a great piece of cinema art. It really depends on whether or not the person gets Lee Myung-se's style and is interested in seeing his presentation. But it is safe to say 'Duelist' is an incredibly unique and audio-visually beautiful film which is worth one's time, whether they happen or choose to take interest in its plot and narrative style or not.
Written by: Orion from 'Orion's Ramblings'
Available on DVD from YESASIA and Amazon
Vasia, also known as Orion or Ori online, is currently doing opinion pieces and database upkeep. She has a love for good TV and a penchant for rambling in written form. Vasia can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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