Korean cinema is enjoying something of a renaissance with a number of hot shot young directors emerging. Myung-Se Lee, director of Duelist, first came to international attention with 1999’s critically acclaimed Nowhere to Hide, which garnered much attention for its visual stylisation. Duelist is similarly stylish; sadly, it lacks substance, which makes it an ultimately unsatisfying experience.
Female detective Namsoon (Ji-won Ha) goes undercover with her partner Ahn to find the source of counterfeit money that is circulating, causing prices to skyrocket, thrusting the common people into hardship, and threatening the economic stability of the entire nation. But every likely lead turns into a dead end; all the prime suspects are killed, and the only clue she can find is the swordsman Sad Eyes (Dong-Won Kan). Sad Eyes is as beautiful as he is brilliant with a sword, and naturally the two fall in love even as Namsoon pursues the criminal behind the counterfeit wave. Can their love triumph over their sense of duty?
If all this sounds like a load of nonsense to you, well, sadly, it is. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had an equally daft plot but it also had a talented cast, brilliant director and above all an authenticity that made you believe it. Duelist wants to have its cake and eat it; it embraces the period setting but then shoehorns in incongruity after incongruity; a terrible synth soundtrack, hyper-real action scenes and a weirdly inconsistent tone, one minute all high tragedy, the next Benny Hill farce.
The acting is an inconsistent as the rest. Ji-won Ha is, frankly, pretty terrible as Namsoon. She seems to confuse shouting with emotion, grumpiness with sexual chemistry, and, except in the fight scenes, lacks conviction. Dong-Won Kan is very pretty, almost too much so, with flowing dark hair and an annoyingly blank expression. The film comes alive in the fight scenes, which are beautifully choreographed to tango music, underlining the feeling of tightly leashed passions, but fighting as foreplay has been done much better in other films, and the conflation of sex and violence is potentially disturbing.
There is some lovely use of colour, particularly in the final fight scene, but in the end its cartoony, inconsistent approach and thinly drawn, unsympathetic lead characters cannot be overcome.
Last modified on