It clearly wasn’t easy for Lee Myung-se to follow up his breakthrough movie. Despite acclaim for his early features Gagman and First Love, it was the DVD hit of 1999’s Nowhere to Hide which found him his largest audience to date and it would be six years before the emergence of his next. He had spent some time in the US attempting to get projects of the ground to no avail and it’s tempting to see Duelist as an acceptance of defeat. A martial arts movie consisting of lavish colour schemes, layered visuals and CG enhancement, the shorthand description of this film as the Korean Hero or House of Flying Daggers is certainly apt. The cynical view would be that Lee is hiding his unsurities behind the pretty pictures and going for the easy move: a big budget cash-in on those Zhang Yimou titles seemingly guaranteed success – except it fell foul of many of those who had fallen in love with Nowhere to Hide.
Indeed, there’s definitely something lacking about Duelist. The visuals stylings can be impressive – at some points breathtaking, even – but it’s so storyboarded and so choreographed (and we’re not just talking about the fight sequences here) that it comes across as curiously lifeless. Lee has seemingly taken the surface elements so seriously that he has forgotten about the grit, the grain, the texture. For a martial arts movie set in the distant past and predominantly outdoors, everything is surprisingly clean; even the raggedy facial hair and eye-patches feel just that little bit too art designed. Furthermore, the early stages give the impression that such concerns led Lee away from the plot, a reductive affair that sees two police officers (one male, one female) undergoing a series of undercover jaunts as they pursue a mysterious masked figure infiltrating the country with counterfeit monies. There are threads of a conspiracy in the background, but overall Duelist plays out like a single set-piece, shifting from moment to moment rather than building, and edited so sleekly as to disguise any joins.
On this evidence alone Duelist should be exactly the kind of film I switch off to – neither intelligent nor trashy enough to entertain, all surface and no depth. Yet there are enough quirks and incidentals to make it at least interesting if never fully satisfying. Most immediate is Jo Seong-woo’s eclectic score, full of Western influences and switching casually from tango to techno and more besides. Similarly the overall tone is quite divergent, sometimes sweet, sometimes comedic and increasingly romantic. There’s also a slightly sardonic edge – as when one of the characters observes a sudden change in the weather from autumnal yellows and reds to more wintry climes just in time for the next round of bouts – suggesting that Lee perhaps isn’t taking this quite so seriously as it first appears. Indeed, it’s this clash between the too-perfect visual schemes and the none-too-reverent manner in which they are played out which at least breathes some life into the picture. Admittedly it is only during the final stages that this really begins to gel and actually add up to any kind of emotional undertow, but then it does prompt one of the most curious endings to a mainstream martial arts pic. As our masked man and policewoman engage in swooning swordplay some kind of overwhelming sexual substitute, Duelist finally escapes the shadow of being a Korean Hero and enters less familiar terrain. Whether it makes for the mishmash which has come before it is a question not easily answered, though it does confirm that Lee wasn’t selling out entirely.
Contender’s presentation of Duelist easily does justice to its crisp visuals. Of course, the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is in place and anamorphically enhanced, whilst the print itself is flawless. Damage is non-existent and there are no discernible flaws in the transfer. The image remains crystal clear, the colours pop just as they should (even the blacks are exactly that) and the level of detail as good as you could expect from a standard definition release. Furthermore the original Korean comes in both DD5.1 and DTS forms, coping as well with the dialogue as it does the score, and the English subtitles are optional. The extras meanwhile are relegated to a second disc meaning nothing is allowed to encroach on the presentation’s overall excellence.
Unfortunately these extras, whilst numerous, aren’t likely to engage anyone but the most fanatical. The various featurettes – a 45-minute ‘making of’ and four briefer ones (for some reason labelled as ‘production notes’) dedicated, respectively, to the editing, music, casting and visuals – never really get under the skin of the production, instead focussing on Duelist’s most immediate surface elements. The only real meat comes from the 22-minute interview with Lee, which at least broadens out the discussion beyond choreography and the like. It’s also interesting to gain some insight into Lee himself, a somewhat peevish figure but nonetheless an intelligent man. Rounding off this disc of extras we also find an array of theatrical trailers and TV spots (three apiece) plus music video. Where applicable all these additions come with Korean dialogue and optional English subtitling.