September 27, 2005


Ha Ji-Won stars as Namsoon in THE DUELISTDirector Lee Myung-se's latest movie, THE DUELIST, is a whirl of movement, a ballet of bloodshed and a candy-colored carnival of clashing characters  but it is most definitely not an action movie: it's a romance. Marketed as a period action flick like HERO or CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, it's releasing its audiences divided into warring factions: heart-on-their-sleeve romantics who sob softly, overwhelmed by what they've just seen, and baffled and underwhelmed adrenaline junkies shaking their heads and wanting to know why the action looks so good but leaves their thrill buttons unpressed.

The story is simplicity itself: Namsoon is a young cop in the Joseon Dynasty whose precinct winds up unraveling a knotty counterfeiting case that turns out to be a political plot to destabilize Korea's economy. During the course of her duties, she crosses paths with Sad Eyes, a King of the Vampires-looking henchman for the baddies. He barely says a single word in the entire movie, but gazing out from behind his bangs like an animal peering out through the bars in his cage; he becomes the movie's emotional center. Anyone who's attuned to motion picture cliches will know that Namsoon and Sad Eyes will fall for each other, but they're on opposite sides of the law and everything will end in tragedy. But Lee Myung-se embraces cliches because they give him a place to stand while he deconstructs the world. He likes to pick them up and bang them against the wall until their rust, barnacles, and familiarity falls off like dust and the kernel of what makes them resonate is exposed.

On a lot of levels, Director Lee's previous film NOWHERE TO HIDE offered nothing new from the standpoint of narrative, the story was blood simple: cops chase a crook. But he's not happy with movies unless he's stripping them down to first principles and reinventing the wheel and NOWHERE TO HIDE became a movie about motion. The movie became an essay on the addiction of adrenaline and the way the thrill of the hunt reduced human beings to nothing more than action junkies. (I blather a lot more about this in this review, if anyone's interested).

THE DUELISTSo reject your assumptions, jettison your baggage, and forget every other movie you've ever seen when you walk into THE DUELIST. There are barely 10 pages of dialogue in the whole film, because Lee isn't happy with his points unless he's written them in sweat and blood, muscle and sinew. Every shift in emotion, mood, and thought is conveyed visually, zapped into your brain via your eyes at 24 frames per second.

This mutagenic masterpiece isn't happy unless it's at least two or three different movies at once: it wants to be a romance told with action and it samples a dozen different genres like a DJ at the turntables. In Korean, the title means DETECTIVE and the scenes of stake-outs, raids, buy-and-bust operations, interrogations, and even a scene of the angry cop turning in his badge are all there, but given a "Flintstones" charm by transporting the story back in time 400 years. A full third of what you see onscreen isn't even real. There are conversations played out where characters wish they could say things they'll never utter, there are ghosts, fables and folktales and alternate courses of action all thrown up onscreen as if they exist. Director Lee's movies are governed by his dreams and to him the line between reality and fantasy isn't just thin, it's invisible.

Kicking off in an enormous marketplace riot, THE DUELIST has a sneaky agenda up its sleeve: it wants to break your heart. Early summertime scenes of slapstick humor, Keystone Kops kollisions, and Namsoon striding around with a sneer on her face and her sleeves rolled up like Jeon Ji-Hyun in MY SASSY GIRL are buried like a corpse beneath a layer of snow as the movie turns serious and the price of violence is exposed. These guys are engaged in a deadly game, and while the first half of the film puts the focus fully on the "game" part of that phrase, the second half brings home the "deadly."

Gang Dong-Won plays Sad Eyes in THE DUELISTWhat pulls you through the movie is the movement. Drunk on tango classes and sword lessons, Ha Ji-Won (Namsoon) and Gang Dong-Won (Sad Eyes) whirl and twist around one another as if they're falling in love for the first time. And in a way, they are. The bitter bite of the movie comes from the assertion that these two kids, who by all rights should be humping in a field somewhere, have been betrayed by the older generation. Namsoon's mentor, Ahn (played by Korean legend, Ahn Sung-Ki), has taught her how to fight, but that's it. He's sent her out into life equipped with a hammer, and to her every problem looks like a nail. How to relate to another human being without hitting them is beyond her grasp. Sad Eyes is just as crippled. Trained by his surrogate father to be nothing more than a killing machine, and not even told his name, he only knows killing. If he can't make something bleed, then he's not interested.

The two of them stalk each other for the first half of the movie, and they love it. For the first time in their lives someone is watching them. Namsoon is following Sad Eyes and he revels in the attention. And Sad Eyes toys with Namsoon and she loves it, too, because she's finally found a playmate. Of course, they're playing with swords and that's their inherent tragedy: these are kids who were never given any toys but loaded guns.

Director Lee likes to show action, not consequences, and THE DUELIST forces the viewer to re-evaluate how they watch movies. Traditional scenes of action and romance aren't given the time and weight we're used to, scenes begin and end both faster and slower than we expect, what catches Director Lee's eye is how people move and what that says about their souls, not how cool it is to show a badass with a sword. His presence hovers over this movie like a deity, and the further you can wriggle into his head the greater the reward. He's impatient with finicky narrative details and hurtles over them at full speed, leaving half-awake viewers shaking their heads and dazedly eating his dust. He's as much a character in THE DUELIST as Namsoon and Sad Eyes, and for viewers who like to start from a familiar point, he's the bad guy. There's not a convention of moviemaking, from how to shoot a love scene to how a plot unfolds, that he doesn't question and undermine.

But if you can tune into his wavelength, this kind of intervention feels human and benevolent. The story ends in tragedy but Lee Myung-se uses his directorial prerogative to wrest a happy ending out of the jaws of defeat and allow his characters a final, spectral pas de deux, before the credits roll and their world ends. It's the kindest moment in movies this year, and for a director who thinks that Korean cinema is currently obsessed with violence and brutality, it feels like a third alternative, and maybe even a manifesto for a return to romance.

September 27, 2005 at 06:17 PM in Film Reviews | Permalink


Sir, you understand Lee Myung-Se. ^_^

I wonder, Grady, have you seen any of his old films? I bet you'd love 'My Love My Bride' and 'Bitter & Sweet'.

I still consider Ahn Sung-Gi dropping everything and just dancing with his umbrella in the rain at the end of 'Bitter & Sweet' one of the most memorable moments in Korean Cinema history.

Posted by: x | Sep 27, 2005 9:27:04 PM

and that, btw, isn't much of a spoiler. Plot isn't important there anyway.

Posted by: x | Sep 27, 2005 10:02:49 PM

The only earlier Lee Myung-Se movies I've seen are:

BITTER AND SWEET which I didn't like much at the time. I thought it looked great but I felt like I didn't understand a thing that was going on.

THEIR LAST LOVE AFFAIR which I loved, but was really depressing.

GAGMAN which I watched while half-awake and would like to see again.

Every time I mention this to anyone they tell me I have to see FIRST LOVE and MY LOVE MY BRIDE.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 28, 2005 7:00:16 AM

Any suggestions on where to find earlier Lee Myung-Se movies with English subtitles?

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 28, 2005 7:01:14 AM

mmmhh... Gagman is being released soon on DVD. As far as the others go, will have to just wait and see.

I do have subtitled VHS (off arirang tv) of My Love My Bride, Bitter & Sweet and First Love, but I think all that's available is the Korean VHS with no subtitles.

Maybe there's some obscure Japanese release, or the impossible to find Chinese ones. I was surfing the YesAsia archive yesterday and I found a Chinese DVD of Bae Chang-Ho's 'While Hunting 2'. It had this crazy photoshopped cover with Ahn Sung-Gi's face put on the poster of '100 Days with Mr. Arrogant'. Something like that.

Anyway, not much info. -_-
But at least Gagman is releasing, and I'm pretty sure it'll have English subs.

Posted by: x | Sep 28, 2005 9:48:38 AM

whale, obviously.

Posted by: x | Sep 28, 2005 9:49:59 AM

So can we rest assured that Lee Myung Se will get his i-am-reinventing-wheels ass back to the states to direct a hollywood flick with a real hollywood budget? Or is this not gonna happen? Woo, Lam, Hark and even Kirk Wong got their chances... What about Lee? Any predictions?

Posted by: maanbong | Sep 28, 2005 11:10:13 PM

Well, I know that while he was taking a break between NOWHERE TO HIDE and THE DUELIST there was talk of a ghost story and a full-tilt, Hollywood-style action movie but I'm not sure where those projects are these days.

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 29, 2005 1:02:11 PM

If you don't mind. Can you tell me the ending for the movie (Duelist) and Namsoon and Sad eyes?

Posted by: Cresta | Jun 28, 2006 7:24:20 AM

This is the best review I've read of the movie since FOREVER. I love The Duelist and it makes me cry every time. :(

Posted by: Annie | Aug 28, 2006 1:10:03 PM

Wow, your review is so wonderful to read! I enjoyed every bit of it. Very details and constructives. I really love this movie. Thanks for such a wonderful review.

Posted by: Rye Chan | Nov 15, 2006 7:41:14 AM

Thanks for the presenting a positive and intriguing perspective to this movie. I was kind of disappointed after reading all the negative reviews and watching the movie and being totally baffled, but I will watch it again with your insights in mind.

Posted by: Holly | Mar 10, 2007 12:44:23 PM

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