Duelist (2005) by Lee Myung-se (T)

Lee Myung-se brings his visionary eye to the swordplay genre with "Duelist".


"They were fighting like they were making love." An appropriate line from "Duelist" by Lee Myung-se, the visionary director behind "Nowhere To Hide" (1999)

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Undercover detectives Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) and Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) are on the trail of counterfeiter gang. A masked swordsman who had been performing in a street circus suddenly finishes the act by killing a government official who had been carrying the kingdom's currency metal cast. A duel between Namsoon and the swordsman sees a piece of their mask cut off. As the detectives investigate, suspicion falls on local official Song (Song Young-chang) which is confirmed when the swordsman now known as Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won) is seen to enter Song's residence. From here a series of encounters between Namsoon and Sad Eyes lead to a growing attraction despite being on opposing sides.

The opening 20 minutes is a frantic mix of cinematic trickery. Featuring a combination of a restless prowling camera alongside frantic at times almost subliminal editing. Indeed this is typical of Lee Myung-se's directorial style with the trademark stop-motion style slow motion in evidence. Whilst undeniably flash it is almost detrimental to the story as there is too much going visually on and the "look at me" style can be distracting


Fortunately, however, the film calms down and while the ever-moving camera is still there, the beauty of the set design and lighting are allowed to be showcased and the centerpiece duels are a cinematic highlight. Each duel has a style of its own and reflects the stages of the protagonists' courtship. The opening one flirtatious concluding with the "tease" as part of Sad Eyes' mask gets sliced off. The second, exquisitely shot in the shadows with only the flashing blades lighting up the gloom. The music complementing beautifully with a Tango style theme furthering the deepening mood of attraction. The third has a Chanbara feel, set in the snow and reminiscent of the classic Zatoichi movies. The fourth is more frenzied and has a feel of climax to the seduction and full of eroticism.

Throughout the movie, there is a sense of dualism also going. Both sides have a Father Figure and Protégé. Mr. Ahn and Namsoon are broadly played by Ahn Sung-ki and Ha Ji-won respectively and initially, this does feel a little jarring but once the main story kicks in there is an evident contrast to that of Sad Eyes and Song. Kang Dong-won and Young-chang Song play their parts with more gravitas and in Kang Dong-won's case fully capturing the enigma that is Sad Eyes. Indeed we never learn their name throughout the movie although there are subtle references to how the character is potentially closer involved to the central plot if careful attention is paid. Indeed an alternate reading of the movie's subtleties only furthers the notion of duality but also adds another layer to the core relationship and the eroticism contained within the dueling.


This is a movie as theatre, where nothing is particularly what it outwardly appears. The opening sequence which is shot like a traditional ghost story is revealed to be a tall tale by an inn's resident. Namsoon as an undercover operative is often seen in "character". Sad Eyes is subtly portrayed as something more and indeed the whole concept of this movie as a period piece is subverted with the flash directorial style and use of an eclectic score.

Jo Seong-woo's score, in particular, deserves a mention. Mixing Classical music with more traditional pieces it is very distinctive and adds to the richness of the piece, which alongside the sublime cinematography and set design give the movie a feeling of depth.

Most swordplay movies have a sense of fatalistic romanticism and "Duelist" brings a fresh spin on this through it's expertly crafted use of the duels. It's set pieces almost telling the story of their relationship through the action and movement. Whilst some may be off-put by the headache-inducing opening sequences, preservation will reward a viewer with a unique interpretation of the genre that has plenty to offer both the mind and the senses.


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Asian Film Vault: Duelist (2005) by Lee Myung-se (T)
Duelist (2005) by Lee Myung-se (T)
Lee Myung-se brings his visionary eye to the swordplay genre with "Duelist".
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