Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Duelist


With an international market hungry for wu xia films and the explosion of visually rich and thematically complex South Korean Cinema, The Duelist has the pedigree to achieve 'instant classic' status. So what went so terribly, terribly wrong?

The basic story is about par for the genre. The political intrigue, investigation police officers and love on top were even recently covered with Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers. Detective Ahn and his young female protégé Namsoon begin an investigation regarding thousands of counterfeit coins being brought into the province. Because merchants and peasants alike are having trouble distinguishing the coins, the economy is threatening to collapse. Roads begin to lead to the Minister of Defense who controls all of the militia in the province and may be making a play for greater power, even rulership of the country.

The Minister has a deadly henchman, Sad Eyes. Introduced in a fascinating sword-play demonstration in a town market, Sad Eyes wears a steel mask (not unlike V in Vendetta) and is all flowing robes, he is the classic brooding young-boyish warrior so often featured in Manga. Namsoon immediately falls in love, and an early fight sequences plays out more like an elaborate mating sequence than an actual blade-fight (more on this later). As the web gets tighter, so does the inexplicable bond developing between Namsoon and Sad Eyes with the Minister and Ahn serving as helpless witnesses to a mounting tragedy.

That sounds intriguing, and worthy of the first big Korean entry to the genre. But director Lee Myung-Se takes every opportunity to destroy flow, character development, and story telling. The movie is a tonal mess. One minute the film has a pounding chase, the next it is a Benny-Hill/Tom Jones sped-up chase. One moment the characters are in an embrace of timeless love, the next a secondary character is talking about ejaculation. There is a framing story, of a blacksmith telling a tale of intrigue and seduction which sets the dark and sultry mood, only to break out with extreme overacting and posturing in an outside tavern. If this is intentional I applaud the ambitious experiment, but that doesn't undo its failure.

What makes it all the more painful is the level of artistry involved to the whole messy affair. The cinematography is as good (and in several scenes, even better) as the recent wu xia films Ang Lee, Chen Kaige and master Zhang Yimou. The martial arts sequences structured as formal dances, while not entire original, are executed in a fresh and suitable exotic fashion. That is when the director bothers to film the fight (several sequences, including a big show down with Inspector Ahn and half the town militia, are just cut away from). There will be no debate as to The Duelist being visually seductive, but I have a theory that several of the fight-tests may have failed due to the industries inexperience with the genre, and are therefore have just been completely excised.

In so many scenes the actors show that there is no shortage in the talent department. Ha Ji-won as Namsoon has great timing in the comedy scenes and can go from ice-queen to sultry-hot convincingly. Sad Eyes, played by Gang Dong-won makes the most out of clichéd and stock Manga character. And both Song Young-chang and Ahn Sung-ki carry themselves with a quiet dignity when the direction allows for it. But herky-jerky story doesn’t allow any of them to shine on the whole.

Other genres creep into the film when they clearly do not belong. There is even a sequence where the police chief demands Anh and Namsoon throw in their badges. It is woefully bad. A scene involving Namsoon as the Korean equivalent of a Geisha, serving tea to Sad Eyes works on its own terms, but is poorly integrated into the story. And that is what The Duelist needs, a story continuity editor, or a work shop with Steven Spielberg in narrative construction. The Duelist becomes a larger disappointment because it has everything going for it except tone and story (yes I’m fully aware of how much I’m repeating this), making the failure all the more acute. It is the definitive film for showing the weakness of Manga adapted to long-form feature film, if the Duelist was instead a series of 25 short films, it would could have been a contender.

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