As a pioneer member of Korea's New Wave of filmmakers, who first came to prominence during the early-Eighties when Korean critics routinely trashed their work for failing to adhere to the state approved genre of "social realism", maverick auteur Lee Myung-se clearly relishes the freedom afforded him by the thriving climate in current Korean cinema. His breakthrough international hit, 1999's "Nowhere to Hide"was a post modern mélange of ultra-stylish action set-pieces that appeared to vindicate Myung-se's tenacious idiosyncrasy, much to the annoyance of conservative film critics in his homeland. The director has certainly bided his time in following up that film's success; but the work born of the ensuing six year hiatus takes Lee Myung-se's early rejection of realist cinema to the ultimate extremes afforded by the higher budgets now allowed him by "Nowhere To Hide's" huge acclaim. But despite its expensive-looking, audience-friendly glamour, "Duelist" is actually extremely experimental; which maybe accounts for its unexpected lack of success with Korean cinema-goers.
Taken at face value, "Duelist" seems to be a populist Korean riff on many of the current trends in Asian cinema. A lush, period-set swordplay epic, it has obvious parallels with the gorgeous poetic sweep of Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers", and the handful of similar works that appeared in their wake. The apparent obsession with Quentin Tarantino's style of self-referential movie geek film-making which has been evident of late in a whole slew of imitation Korean 'Pulp Fictions', seems to express itself here in similar terms to "Kill Bill" with its relentless chopping and swapping of genre tropes and its mixed aesthetics. But while Tarantino's cinema has always ultimately been concerned with storytelling, Lee Myung-se here seems to want to not just toy with narrative structure, but to deconstruct it completely, to the point where "plot" is just a vague sketchy background for a veritable showcase of playful, technologically showy set-pieces.
The film is based loosely on the comic book Damo Namsoon by Bang Hak-gi, and the action takes place sometime during the Chosun Dynasty (any time between 1392 and 1910, although no dates are given). The plot is not something that need detain us for long (since there so little of it!) but is built around the investigation of a counterfeiting ring by tomboy-ish female detective, Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and her small group of male colleagues, which include her chief partner, Detective Ahn (Ahn Sung-kee). Eventually, she discovers that the whole criminal network may well be part of a plot by factions within the government, led by the Minister of Defence (Song Young-chang) who intend to deliberately destabilise the economy for there own political ends. Throughout her investigation though, Namsoon repeatedly tangles with a tall, silent swordsman known only as "Sad Eyes". Because of his apparent involvement with the Minister, due to events in his inscrutable past, Sad Eyes and Namsoon end up in a series of duels through-which their mutual attraction towards each other soon becomes clear.
This is the real "story" of the film, of course: all other plot quickly becomes a negligible backdrop for what Lee Myung-se really wishes to convey: a love story metaphorically illustrated in the form of sword duels that take on the character and rhythm of dance. There is a play on the word "duel" intended in the very title of the film; for in this relationship between Sad Eyes and Namsoon there is a Love-Hate, Ying-Yang theme being expressed which suggests itself in every aspect of their interaction and character. Interestingly, Sad Eyes is given a very feminine androgynous appearance while Namsoon has a "boyish" personality (and often dresses as a man while undercover on an investigation); the two are on opposite sides of the law but are inexplicably bound together, complementing each other to form a whole. Although the duels form the backbone of their interaction, Martial Arts fans need not apply: just as he disregards narrative, Mysung-se is equally uninterested in the conventions of action cinema. The sword fights are choreographed to music and staged as dances rather than fast-paced fights, and the director's complete commitment to interesting visuals often leads him to make eccentric choices in how he shoots these sequences: one such duel is staged completely in shadows with only the flashing blades of the combatants visible throughout.
Elsewhere, the director proves equally relaxed in his portrayal of action scenes -- deconstructing them and perversely denying the audience the intended adrenaline fix. A scene in a marketplace early on in the film, is slowed to a lugubrious slo-mo crawl and timed to choreograph with a piece of 19th Century classical music! what should have been a dynamic burst of action becomes a balletic mime. Another fight sequence is speeded up to a comically absurd, Benny Hill-style farce, complete with chip-monk voices! Myung-se also has little time for the niceties of Period drama, splashing the film with loud bursts of anachronistic music -- everything from rock to hip-hop to choral music! This mercurial, peripatetic style gives the film the quality of a kind of living anime or Manga; a feeling which is enhanced by a constant barrage of outlandish transition shots, unusual freeze frames (entire scenes play out as a series of still images, like the successive frames of a comic book), and a bright bold colour pallet that gives the film a lush, painterly mis-en-scene.
This is the one clear triumph of the film: it is one of the most visually pleasing and arresting movies I've seen for some time. The cinematography, set design and lighting schemes come together to offer up a luminous, Bava-esque visual style. Night time sequences often look the most beautiful: deep oil slicks of heaving black are punctuated with vivid crimson, emerald greens and luminous violets standing proud against a rich background; the 2.35:1 frame always composed in striking painterly fashion. These are sequences here that any modern cineaste will want to view again and again. Unfortunately, a huge wodge of the surrounding material continually distracts and annoys with its artificial, frenetic busyness. This is a defiantly superficial film that rejoices in reducing its characters to cyphers and highlights style over content at every opportunity, but it is at its best when it is willing to allow the viewer simply to luxuriate in the ravishing but superficial beauty of its images rather than batter him/her with a constant barrage of slick technical trickery and brash, overstated cleverness.
The 2 disc DVD from Premier Asia offers a superb 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer with a dynamic Korean DTS 5.1 sound track and clear, removable subtitles. The two hours-plus of extra features are saved for disc two, which includes a forty-five minute "Making Of" documentary which is made up mostly of behind-the-scenes footage which shows the organised chaos of a film set. Most of the information on the making of the film is reserved for a series of featurettes organised by subject matter: there is one on the editing, music and another featuring cast interviews, while the longest (running at thirty-five minutes) deals with the look of the movie and includes interviews with production designers and make-up artists. there is also an informal "interview" with Lee Myung-se by his musical collaborator, in which the director discusses his attitude towards Korean critics and his film-making style. Finally, there is a big collection of trailers and TV spots.