Film Review: The Duelist / Hyeongsa (2005)
Dreaming of The Duelist
by Ender’s Girl
Ha Ji-won, Kang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Song Young-chan
Written and directed by Lee Myung-se / Korea Pictures, 2005
In a Nutshell:
Undercover detectives Ahn and Namsoon are hot on the trail of a counterfeiting syndicate that is fast paralyzing the Joseon economy. Complicating matters is the entrance of a mysterious and deadly swordsman who stands in the way of their investigation.
What I loved most about this film was the breathtaking beauty of the visuals and the heavily stylized direction. It’s as if I had walked into a dream… The movie has the feel of a graphic novel on celluloid (like Frank Miller’s 300, for instance), or a stage play translated to film. Director Lee Myung-se reveals his proclivity for the theatrical with his use of dramatic tableaus, vivid colors and striking contrasts in scene rendering and composition, and especially the interplay of light and shadow. This third aspect is particularly used to enhance the atmosphere of the duel scenes between Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) and the mysterious swordsman, whom we only know as Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won) — and we see this in the clash of blades, the glint of steel, the shadows and silhouettes. Super cool…
The duels are the highlights of the film, and I especially loved the first one — the tango, and how the director uses sword fight as a metaphor for dance — with its danger, its thrill, its charged tension and measured steps, and even its subtle eroticism. The fights are also a metaphor for lovemaking (=> love is a duel), so we see all these different images coming into play in each fight/dance/act of lovemaking the lovers (for they have come to be that) engage in. I love that despite the dizzying, frenetic pace of the “regular” scenes (like those set in the marketplace and city streets), there’s a certain stillness to the duel sequences. One of my favorite shots is when Sad Eyes hangs suspended against the backdrop of an enormous, alien-looking moon — holding his blade aloft, dark and yet dazzling, motionless but fully alive.
I really did fall in love with the main characters, despite their cartoonish one-dimensionality. Loved the dynamic of Namsoon and Detective Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki), these hopelessly unrefined two peas in a pod, always at loggerheads but fiercely protective of one another. The coarseness of their personalities only underscores the contrast with the grace and finesse of Sad Eyes. And oh, Sad Eyes… He cuts a tragic figure, a conflicted and morally ambiguous character dueling with himself on issues of loyalty and honor. He seems to be made of the dreamlike essence of the film itself, distilled into one enigmatic person. Sad Eyes feels like a changeling — unearthly, androgynous and beautiful; ephemeral as the flickering shadows, inscrutable as the night. And it is during his one actual moment of intimacy with Namsoon — their tender heart-to-heart at the teahouse — that he makes his final choice, when he betrays his mentor (and the only person who knows his true name), and in doing so betrays himself.
A note on the cast: I thought the lead actors were pretty much perfect for their roles. Well, Ahn Sung-ki is great in EVERYTHING — he can clean his nose for 5 minutes on film, and people will still be lining up to watch him in cinemas. And Ha Ji-won — I loved her here, loved her in Damo (MBC, 2003), loved her cameo in Fashion ‘70s (SBS, 2005), and… let’s see… *kicks Memories of Bali (SBS, 2004) under the rug* Oh, that’s about it. And Kang Dong-won — he certainly got the best camera angles in this film, I’ll say! This was the first time I saw him act, and when I looked him up afterwards, I went, ehhh… when I saw him without the wig. It’s as if his mojo went pffft when he lost the hair, teehee. His hair seemed to represent (more metaphors here!!!) that cloak of mystery that surrounded Sad Eyes and made him so damn attractive in the first place. So, I guess I’m not really a Kang Dong-won fan after all, heh.
That said, the secondary character of the Storyteller who bookends the film with his raunchy tales was a bit of an irritant, jarring and out of place with the rest of the movie. Was he placed there as a plot device, to give the film a story-within-a-story twist? But he just seemed to be an appendage, and not intrinsically related to the story itself.
Despite the visual feast that was The Duelist, when the film ended I found myself reeling from this cinematic chiaroscuro still feeling vaguely perplexed. I had to shake my head several times and ask myself, “So what just happened back there?” I felt that the film lacked clarity and lucidity in terms of storytelling. When I had the chance to later re-watch the film the story made more sense — I mean, the broad plot outline was easy to get the first time; what I felt fell short of the mark was the attempt to integrate the individual scenes into a coherent whole. By the second viewing I was at least able to pay attention to anything I might have earlier missed out on — and I tried to be more objective this time — but it still felt like the director was relying too heavily on symbol, image and gesture (as evident in the sword fight/dance), rather than on strength of narrative. Here we see the director as visual artist rather than as storyteller: His painterly eye seemed to be giving ascendancy to mood, atmosphere and aesthetic feel, rather than to the flow and structure of the story. It’s as if he started out with a really cool character in mind (Sad Eyes), and some really, really cool fight sequences (the duels), and he just built the rest of the film around these disjointed scenes.
The story of The Duelist is one told in brush strokes, without the finer details — details that may seem inconsequential at first, but which in the long run spell the difference between a good film and a great one.
Artistic & technical merit: B
Entertainment value: A-