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Ko - production in Busan
  • The Duelist
  • by Pierce Conran /  Sep 11, 2017

  • 2005113 MIN | Romance, Action
    DIRECTOR LEE Myung-se
    CAST HA Ji-won, GANG Dong-won, AHN Sung-ki, SONG Young-chang
    RELEASE DATE September 8, 2005
    Tel +82 2 545 6610
    Fax +82 2 545 8813

    People tend to credit the usual triumvirate of major filmmakers (PARK Chan-wook, BONG Joon-ho and KIM Jee-woon) with bringing modern style to Korean cinema, but long before they arrived on the scene their senior LEE Myung-se was already rewriting the rulebook for the local industry. From his wild debut Gagman (1989) to his groundbreaking thriller Nowhere to Hide (1999), LEE experimented aggressively with genre, color and editing, but for some, his greatest work came in 2005, with the release of the singular Joseon Era romance and swordplay extravaganza The Duelist.

    During the Joseon Era, Detectives Namsoon and Ahn investigate the source of a counterfeit money plot that may be tied to the Minister of Defense. Namsoon keeps bumping into the Minister’s lithe and loyal swordsman Sad Eyes and the two engage in a series of beautiful duels.

    From a narrative perspective, The Duelist keeps things simple, but frankly, even with so little plot it can be a little difficult to follow, as even the film’s staunchest supporters may concede. But that’s because the film’s real merits lie within its unique and engrossing construction. The expression ‘style over substance’ has been used to describe it, but here the style is the substance, as LEE’s intricate combination of movement, cutting and color are what forge the central relationship at the heart of the story and the feelings therein to a much greater degree than the script was ever intended.

    The Duelist opens with one of the most audacious sequences ever put to film in Korea. All the major characters (as well as a sea of other faces) are introduced in a bewildering market sequence that sets several events in motion against a backdrop of iridescent costumes and props combined with dusty stalls and earth. The camera slides to and fro as LEE masks cuts within graceful transitions and dots his frames with carefully positioned and constantly moving bodies. 

    Beyond the visual spectrum, LEE also toys with the audio track, frequently isolating certain sounds to emphasize aspects of the events on screen or to conjure up surprising new images. In one part of the sequence, the sounds of a cheering crowd and clashing coins turn a chase for a bag of money into a slow motion rugby/football game. LEE’s control of the mise-en-scene is playful, exacting and masterful, and the result is a unique sensory feast. 

    12 years after its release, The Duelist barely seems to have aged and if anything the more time passes, the more we can appreciate just how far ahead of its time the film was. LEE, who turned 60 this year, hasn’t completed a project since 2007’s M, but many are still patiently waiting for his return.
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