aka 형사 aka Hyeongsa
Written by Lee Myung-se and Lee Hae-kyeong
Based on the comic by Bang Hak-ki
Directed by Lee Myung-se
Stylish visuals and Ha Ji-won can’t save Duelist from the horrors of mediocrity. They try so hard! But close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades. Duelist suffers a few too many flaws to for me to recommend it, though I can appreciate the type of film it was trying to be. It’s an anachronistic tale of ancient detectives working against an attempted coup plotted against the Korean king, complete with stylized visuals that will remind you of MTV editing. But it’s actually a film about two people connecting, people on opposite sides of a conflict. And the tragedy that results. This is a Korean film, after all!
As longtime readers (all 3 of you) know, I’m a sucker for crazy visualizations in film. Especially when they’re integrated so well into the film they become indispensable. Parts of Duelist achieve this goal. But other parts do not, the visuals become a distraction at best, and a problem at worst. There are lots of scenes that transition not by normal cuts, but instead by the camera sweeping into the new scene and the old scene becomes the new. That was neat. I wasn’t so keen on the montages that features a lot of scenes fading in and out, but parts never fully fading in, just imprinting on the scene. It seemed more like the film was trying to remind us of what the characters were feeling and thinking about, even though we should know just by virtue of paying attention.
Duelist takes its music queues from throughout the world and throughout time, so European circus tunes and classic Korean music are both used to set whatever mood is needed. Even the noises of crowds cheering are dubbed in despite a lack of such crowds, to make us know that an action is worth our admiration.
The action scenes work well when it’s limited to two combatants, but the larger battle sequences don’t feature the drama and intimacy of the film’s duels (and the intimacy isn’t helped by the larger sequences featuring lots of overhead shots of crowds instead of shots in the battles. Lee Myung-se does his preferred smaller fights with a mix of slow-motion and sped-up choreography, which both shows off the dueling as a loving slow dance, and as a wild and furious clash of emotions. The duels often aren’t about fighting, but have a larger emotional meaning.
Duelist comes from a time when Korean cinema was riding high, atop the world. But that horse was getting tired, and the world is ever-spinning. Bearing that in mind, I still judge Duelist against its contemporary films and the quality of the work that was being released at the time. Duelist does not measure up. Were it released today, it would be regarded as a mini-masterpiece. But in the middle of the shuffle of some of the greatest cinema to come out of the peninsula, Duelist barely registers.