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Duellist
cast: Ha Ji-wow, Ahn Sung-gi, Kang Dong-won, and Ha Ji-weon

director: Lee Myung-sae

108 minutes (12) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Premier Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Most nations have a 'wild west' period that they can mythologize. For my own land, Scotland, that time happens to be in the 17th and early 18th centuries. For many old world countries, it is in the medieval period. Duellist is set in 19th century Korea, but to western eyes it could as well be set many centuries before that. There are no firearms and there is no sign of the industrial revolution. And as far as westerns (okay, easterns) go, it has the stylised feel of the Leone films. There is plenty of impossible, slow motion action to delight the viewer. Duellist is based on a manga and that, combined with director Lee Myung-sae's very visual approach, has produced a film that is beautifully shot and very easy on the eye. The scenes shot in the snow, for example, can easily be imagined as being placed on a white page. The story, however, is weak.

Stepping past the unnecessary framing narrative, we find two cops working undercover in a market. Namsoom (effectively played by Ha Ji-won) is a woman who is a bit of a rough diamond, and her partner is the older Ang (Ang Sung-kee) who supplies the comedy foil. They are trying to crack a counterfeiting operation when a masked man intervenes, and a wonderful martial arts set piece with much swordplay unfolds. The masked man, curiously, is wearing a full-face mask and a long wig that is very reminiscent of Alan Moore's V For Vendetta. Unfortunately, when the mask is removed, Kang Dong-won is found to be underneath. He is far too much a pretty boy to take seriously as a warrior (imagine, if you can, a Hollywood idol version of Joey Ramone). However, as Namsoom and 'Sad Eyes' come increasingly into contact throughout the film, a romance of sorts blossoms which seems an altogether much more natural environment for Kang.

Meanwhile, back at the investigation, the police realise that the counterfeit money is of such a high quality that someone very powerful must be behind it. The country's economy is under threat. When they realise that the mastermind is a government minister, our buddy partnership try to infiltrate his fortress. There is the inevitable screw-up followed by a very disconcerting scene where Namsoom's boss asks her for her badge. Either this is a pastiche, lazy scripting, or someone having a laugh while they translate the subtitles. The set design is beautifully made and the action scenes look balletic in their choreography, and apart from a few misjudged bits of Keystone Cops style speeded-up camerawork, there is not much to offend visually.

Leone was mentioned earlier. Like him, Lee has a favourite soundtrack composer. In this case it is Song-woo, who has attached something to most every part of the film. There are a couple of pieces from the European classical canon, classical Korean music, some overpowering rock music and even the odd touch of accordion slapped on it. It adds to the feeling of watching an empty spectacle, and that, unfortunately, is what is laid out here.

There are plenty of extras. Around two-and-a-half hours of them, so they have all been moved onto a second disc. There are half-a-dozen trailers and a video for an insipid and banal ballad called Long Song, as well as separate features on editing, swordplay, set and costume design (interesting for what it reveals about the historical accuracy of the film), and the soundtrack. There is a mini-feature, Behind The Blade, which follows the plot of the film and will be familiar to anyone who has seen the 'making-of' hagiographies that pour out of Hollywood. And, lastly, there is an interview with Lee conducted by Song-woo and a critic who seems to be some sort of a relative of the director. Lee seems to be covering up an underlying feeling of bitterness. When one finds out that his films are not critically popular in Korea, and that Duellist bombed at the box office, then it is hardly surprising.
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