Based on the comic book Damo Namsoon by Bang Hak-gi, Duelist takes place during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910 - with no specific date of reference). Detectives Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) have been hot on the trail of a counterfeiting ring, which turns out to be more complicated than simple money laundering. Korea is facing financial turmoil and the last thing it needs are political heads trying to ruin its economy. These are serious times and Namsoon and Ahn must work quickly if they’re to uncover the culprits behind the scheme. They wind up encountering a mysterious assassin who goes only by the moniker of “Sad Eyes” (Gang Dong-won) and whom they believe is involved in the counterfeiting scheme. As Namsoon – not too discretely – follows Sad Eyes she becomes increasingly drawn to him, and likewise he toward her. Their fascination for one another leads them to many further encounters, but is this a romance that’s destined to be doomed from the start?
After a six year hiatus director Lee Myung-se is back; something of a surprise given the smash success of 1999’s Nowhere to Hide. Regardless of how long he’s spent away it’s clear that he hasn’t lost his visual touch, and as the Duelist demonstrates he’s quite comfortable in continuing to open up narratives through heavy movement and little else. With Nowhere to Hide the director told a simple story of two detectives hunting down a criminal, and despite it being ridiculously light in terms of storytelling it turned out to be one of the best action films of the last decade. The reason for this being that Lee’s intention was to fully exploit the art of storytelling through pictures alone, and he did so with style. Duelist works much the same way, in that it’s a play without so many words, but is it a successful one?
It’s certainly an interesting one. Indeed, to use a cliché like so many that Lee has toyed with, Duelist is a visually arresting film; quite beautiful in fact. At one point it might have come before the director’s previous success; Lee has spoken of realising his dream and finding difficulties in funding, obviously when it came to replicating the authenticity of the period. Well the time has finally come and his status has ensured that he can now work with large budgets; surely Duelist is a lovely piece of cinema that’s meticulously composed from start to finish. His decision to set most of it at night is a curious one, but sure enough there’s quaintness in its hushed environment, which manages to be reflective of the emotional struggle that’s going on between Namsoon and Sad Eyes. Lee emphasises this point simply through angles or painfully slow, yet often wistful shots. The primary marketplace locations which are highlighted during the daytime bring an all important bustling sense of community as the detectives’ trip and fall numerous times while trying to navigate the tight streets in search of their man. Yes, Lee has his settings down pat and he even uses his sprawling sets to carry several action scenes (which consist mainly of running) much in the same vein as Nowhere to Hide, yet there is a distinctly different feel to this picture. Simply put Duelist isn’t an action film, it’s a romance with a few chase sequences and darkly lit sword fights.
If we pick up on the action then, this is one portion of the film that may throw off those who were expecting something to surpass Nowhere to Hide’s more energetic moments. Let’s not beat around the bush, that film was glorified violence with ten minute chase sequences all the way, but it was magnificently glorified. Duelist harks back to some of these moments, the early marketplace chase being highly reminiscent, but when it comes to solid one and one action things take a different turn. Lee cranks everything down a notch, he places Damsoon and Sad Eyes in very dark surroundings when it comes to their reoccurring duels, and while they look nicely choreographed they’re over-edited and are far too overshadowed by – shadows. Close ups are more important to Lee it would seem, and upon seeing a little light filter through, their faces and body language show the required emotions. So this isn’t an action film in the strictest sense; these scenes depict a struggle of both love and honouring one’s duty. Interesting but on occasion far from compelling.
“Compelling.” I seem to have this compelling desire to namedrop Nowhere to Hide. Even so, one thing about that film is that it never went off the rails when it could easily have done so; there just wasn’t a single interest in brief romance or any other factors that would have distracted from the main point. Here it’s Lee’s intent to place a love story in the centre of his picture. From a certain standpoint it’s a brave and commendable move, but it’s troubled. Lee sets up the inevitable romantic pairing rather cutely; Namsoon and Sad Eyes admire each other from afar, they even play little games so that they can get close enough to feel each other’s breath. Indeed it’s endearing, especially with the air of curiosity that’s displayed between the two. But there’s a need to hurry things along and as such the relationship doesn’t become all too involving. While the forbidden love aspect plays out things then start to generally feel forced from the point that they actually sit in a room together onward. Obviously he’s passionate about bringing to the forefront a romantic element, but it feels like an area in which he’s not fully skilled at representing here, despite having helmed relationship movies in the past. It’s perhaps natural then that he sidesteps and encapsulates this romance through poetic swordplay, complete with tango-esque rhythms, both musically and visually. Director Lee certainly shows another side of his film making skills, displaying compassion for his subjects and showcasing that actions do indeed speak louder than words, even if he tends to get a little self indulgent in doing so. The main underlying problem though is that he’s juggling too much; the film starts out well enough as a comedy, it then mixes things up a little and adds some drama before finishing with a dark showdown. Emotions become conflicted, certainly for this viewer, who as the film went on became further disinterested in the outcome of any of these characters.
With that said at least the performances are solid. Veteran, Ahn Sung-ki is reunited with Lee, who cast him as a baddie in the aforementioned hit film, not to mention his debut feature from 1988 Gagman. This time we see him as a good guy, putting on an interesting accent, which I presume is meant to be somewhat reflective of the dialect from the period in which the film is set. Ahn Sung-ki, usually a very straight-faced player even when doing comedy, seems to embrace his role with much glee, relishing several opportunities in the process. Ha Ji-won proves to be a good balance for her co-star; they share a nice chemistry and truly feel as if they’ve been together for years, despite us receiving very little insight into their history. One of the interesting twists is in the film’s role reversal, in that Namsoon is a tom-boy figure, with Ha Ji-won making sure to stick to her masculine persona, which proves to be often amusing, whereas Gang Dong-won’s Sad Eyes is portrayed as being that little bit more feminine. In fact Lee would appear to adore Gang, placing a lot of focus on his movements and presenting a balletic figure that embodies his romanticised ideal. Gang isn’t required to do much more that look sombre and wispy, but given his material he does well.
enterOne has gone all out with their presentation for Duelist. The sturdy box, with its hardbound cover opens up to reveal a red tray which houses a 3-disc dig-pack and a very nice photo booklet. The collector’s among you will surely be racing to add this to their shelves. Please note that this limited edition set is limited to 5,000 copies worldwide.
Duelist is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which has been preserved with a nice anamorphic image from enterOne. Contrast and black levels are most important for this film, as it largely takes place at night time, and they look very good; blacks are deep, but there is slight contrast boosting which makes some of the night duelling a little difficult to make out. Edge Enhancement is also evident. Colours on the other hand are quite superb, particularly during day time shots, with well defined autumnal hues.
Duelist comes with a choice of Korean 5.1 DTS and Korean 5.1 Surround. I’ve gone with the former. Park Jun-o (sound effects) and Cho Sung-woo (composer) have done a grand job in accompanying Lee’ visuals, so much so that these elements have become stars themselves. Certainly enterOne’s disc compliments the score and brings out Lee’s true vision as much as it possibly can. Action scenes are suitably atmospheric, with sword fighting being clangy goodness, while the marketplace truly feels lively across the board and night time scenes offer a nice ambience. Dialogue is very well steered, with one or two excellent moments shared between characters.
As for subtitles, these are good, bar a few grammatical errors. Curiously enough there’s a subtitled portion during the opening marketplace scene which spouts a little exposition, despite not a word being uttered. This serves as an introduction, informing us that Namsoon and Ahn are after a counterfeiting ring. It’s most unusual because we can figure that out for ourselves.
Disc one : This contains two audio commentaries and I have to apologise over my lack of Korean for not being to list exactly who is speaking on them, although from listening to the introductions I’m pretty sure Lee Myung-se, Ahn Sung-ki, Ha Ji-won and Gang Dong-won are on the first one. I couldn’t make out the names on the second commentary, except for Lee Myung-se again.
Also on the disc is an isolated music track titled “Music and Effect 5.1”. Now this is very interesting. I am presuming that the reason it’s on the disc is because the director intended it to be. This version of the film feels a lot like the old silents, but more that that it gives Cho Sung-woo’s score that extra lift, it might even be a better version than the theatrical release if we truly wanted to get into the film via its sound and visuals.
Disc 2 : Forgive my briefness once more as I get through the second bunch of goodies. First up is a making of piece (45.20) which seems to cover a lot of ground. There’s rehearsal footage, shooting, interviews, a lot of which can be enjoyed without subs, but of course a lot that can’t…yes. Next is a look at the film design (35.42), from costumes and make-up to sets. There’s a lot of chatting on this from various designers. Interviews (11.44) with Ha Ji-won, Gang Dong-won and Ahn Sung-ki follow next. An editing feature (15.19) and a look at the score (12.18) precede a CG piece (12.34). A conversation between Lee Myung-se, Jo Sung-woo and someone else (no offence) takes 22-minutes. Rounding off the disc is an EPK, which consists of the teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, TV spot, music video and Cannes promo.
Disc 3 : Wowsers, Penny! What a rarity this is. “Chosun Noir: Lee Myung-Se Makes Duelist” not only comes with English subtitles, it also runs for a whopping 73 minutes. This is an honest look at a man who has been trying hard to find his audience for a number of years. We get contributions from his main crew on Duelist, along with several cast members and actors who have worked with him in the past, such as Park Joong-hoon. One thing’s for sure, they all have something in common, being that they’re all too eager to say how much of a difficult director Lee is to work with, certainly there’s enough evidence here to prove these people correct. The documentary starts off by mentioning his early days, his debut feature and how Nowhere to Hide turned his career around. Off the back of that he took off to America in the hopes of making it big, which explains his six year absence. That dream was never realised and he eventually came back home. When we get to Duelist this fuels the interesting comments from all parties; we learn that this is a man who gets what he wants and doesn’t want input from anyone else, and yet he’ll gladly take credit for any suggestion made by another person. It’s not long before we see Lee as a very egotistical fellow who makes bold statements about himself. Yet despite this he still comes across as a very passionate man, and truly makes movies because he loves movies; a nice philosophy of his being “love is a movie”. He talks in detail about his thoughts on cinema, including his frustrations within the Korean film industry, the pressures of being a director in Korea and often pondering about mainstream cinema. It becomes so personal that one wonders just what Duelist really is about. It could well be an allegorical piece for a director trying to hit the right notes in order to succeed abroad. These conclusions are not too difficult to reach from seeing this.
Elsewhere his crew have some very interesting things to say, with their comments being interspersed with behind the scenes footage. Here we witness Lee arguing with his actors: Ahn Sung-ki challenging his decisions several times, and rightfully so, and also various crew members. At one point producer Lee Choon-yun mentions that Lee treats his crew more like labourers, rather than skilled professionals and this can most definitely be seen, along with evident frustrations beginning to show. Actor Ja Hee-chi voices his bitterness when he says that the performers are being treated like extras rather than actors, not being able to see call sheets or scripts. Lee comes and goes, he talks about some people not “getting” his film, which is rather presumptuous, although at least acknowledges that audiences will make up their own minds. We get other backstage stuff, such as the director losing his rag several times, and I do wonder just how different his film might have turned out if he did follow his crew’s advice, but that that just wouldn’t be Lee Myung-se – the self proclaimed “first director of the 21st century” who wants to continually make unique cinema. This documentary is a fascinating insight into not only the man, but also the unglamorous side of filmmaking.
Next from the menu some kind of organization holds a screening of the film, with Lee Myung-se in attendance. A few brief interviews make up the bulk of this 8-minute piece. A music video rounds of the disc
There’s nothing wrong with a simple story, or clichés or style over substance, but Lee Myung-se doesn’t seem to be able to balance everything well. I’m afraid that visuals alone and suggestive swordplay don’t raise this above expectations. I appreciate and understand what Lee Myung-se is trying to achieve with Duelist, but regardless of whether or not everything he does here is intended it doesn’t always work. It was always going to be difficult to follow up his previous film, which I still regard as being a masterpiece, and at least he’s tried something a little different, but in the end it’s all so underwhelming and runs slightly too long. It’s something of a frustrating experience when you begin to take into account everything that the story could have told us, but I don’t doubt that it will please a lot of people all the same.
As for the DVD? This is quite a remarkable release; the packaging is wonderful and the subtitled documentary really is a must-see, managing to be more engaging than the actual film. enterOne has done a grand job here and I hope that this is a sign that we'll see more subtitled extras in future. As such I’ve decided to mark the extras higher than usual. The doc is well worth the effort, though it’s a shame that the rest of the features could not be subbed, but there is enough here to ensure a solid release for those buying domestically - which still doesn’t mean a lot to us peasants in the UK