Review: Duelist (2005)

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It’s rare to see a film that fetishises the male lead as this one does. Plenty of films do it for the female lead, by giving her lighting and camera angles that make her more alluring, or writing a character free of flaws yet still intriguing. But this time, it’s the man: an assassin known only as “Sad Eyes”.

This might sound odd, but if you watch the film you’ll see what I mean. A mysterious character clad all in black, his face half-hidden by a soft fall of black hair, is enough of an enigma. Add in the coyly flirtatious sidelong glances, the ability to retreat into shadow and disappear, and the catlike grace of his swordplay, and you’ve got one fully-drawn fetish. The fact that he rarely speaks, just smiles enigmatically, underlines his nature as more of a symbol than a person.

Fortunately, I’m rather partial to catlike grace and sidelong glances, and Lee is one of my favourite directors, having made the awesome cop film Nowhere To Hide. So I rather enjoyed this strange mix of swordplay, cop film, and love story. But it won’t suit everyone: if you like your swordplay straight, then look elsewhere. Similarly, if you want a straight-up tale of cops and robbers, or a gentle romance.

Cinematographically, this film looks very similar to Nowhere To Hide. Lee is a master of freeze frame and slow motion, and once again uses it to excellent effect. There’s a scramble near the beginning as a wagon loaded with cash overturns in a crowded market, in which the slow motion emphasises the awkwardness of cops and shoppers alike. The first fight scene between Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won) and Sad Eyes (Gang Dong-won) is likewise enhanced. The music chances subtly, and just as you begin to think “Hang on a minute, this looks more like a…”, the music, and the fight, leaps into a tango, illustrated with strobing freeze frames.

Visually, the whole film is spectacular. The stalking scene, as the cops pursue their quarry through the market, is lavishly coloured: huge green glass buoys are carried by just about every second passer-by, and Nam-soon chases Sad Eyes through a dye workshop, where brilliantly coloured silks are draped for drying. There’s a party, with lush costumes and dazzling sets draped in sheer organza, which features a sword performance by Sad Eyes which is more dance than defence. And there’s plenty of snow, this being Korea in the middle of winter.

It’s been said of Lee that his films are poetry, not prose, and that’s certainly true here. You might find the storyline a bit tatty. You might also be annoyed at Ha’s overacting, giving Nam-soon a swaggering, scowling persona that’s just too over the top. You might even be upset by Ahn Sung-ki’s querulous detective. But you cannot deny that this film looks damn good.

7.5 tricky bows on the front of dresses out of 10.
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