Zhang Yimou set the international standard for martial arts romances in audiences’ minds with Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. Ever since, the challenge for other directors has been to match his visual skills and storytelling while maintaining their own originality.

There are times when alHaAsLee Myung-Se’s Duelist surpasses all predecessors with the absolute breath-arresting beauty of his compositions. There are sequences that are so stunning, moving and exquisitely expressive of his protagonists’ relationship, that the film is worth watching purely for these alone. So memorable are such occasions, though, you can’t help but view the rest of the film in relief and find it wanting.

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Set in Korea during the late Chosun Dynasty era, Ha Ji-Won’s detective Namsoon is a talented and hot-headed young woman sent undercover with her partner, Ahn (Ahn Sung-Kee). They’re investigating a counterfeiting operation that is flooding the country with bogus money, destabilising the whole economy and leading it into the hands of the scheming Minister of Defence Piljoon Song (Song Young-chang). As the detectives probing continues, more suspects end up assassinated and at each turn Namsoon encounters Kang Dong-Won’s mysterious and brilliant swordsman, known as Sad Eyes.

The heart and soul of the piece is the slow drawing together of Namsoon and Sad Eyes, on opposite sides of the law but inevitably, reluctantly falling in love. Their ardour develops through a series of fiendishly choreographed duels that poetically express their martial arts skills, sense of position and their halting, passionate attraction. Two of these duels, both conducted at once in shadow, in light and a twilight dance in between, are mesmeric cinematic achievements. They combine timeless slow motion with zinging swordplay, captured in expertly contrived framings. At these times Lee Myung-Se’s control of the direction, timing and editing are faultless, creating evocative images that resound long after the film has finished.

The decision to soundtrack some of the fights and other sequences with modulating electronica works surprisingly well. It’s an attractive blend of modern sensibilities with the old dynastic scenery and further emphasises the evident Manga qualities and origins (it is adapted from Bang Hak-gi).

Sadly, at other times Myung-Se’s poise and skill deserts him and his evident contemporary flare seems to run unchecked. The film takes its first painfully long 25 minutes to settle down to any kind of tone or tempo at all. The camera’s never still, while he lobs in every kind of cut and edit, freeze-frame gimmick, dissolve and swipe to disorientating and irritating effect. Referential it may be and its intent to express the country’s political chaos is apparent, but the mess it creates is unsatisfying and unnecessary. Later on, in between the bouts of action, he similarly resorts to such trickery and makes things feel far too hectic for the film’s own good. This and the uneven storytelling, bouncing from one plot jumpstart to the next, hardly seem worthy of Myung-Se’s obvious talent.

Also less pleasing is most of Ha Ji-Won’s one-dimensional performance when she’s not fighting. Her efforts at snarling-lipped arrogance and drunken abandon are decidedly unconvincing. Kang Dong-Won fares slightly better, although his role is much more about posing prettily in his Sith-like garb while Ji-Won hams frenetically around him. With performances this slim it’s hard to become emotionally invested in their romance and really feel their tragedy to the Shakespearian degree that Myung-Se would have us do.

A disappointing watch overall, but the sustained flashes of visual brilliance will stay with you long after the busy dross has faded away.

Reviewed on: 02 Jul 2007
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A police agent investigating a conspiracy becomes obsessed with the mysterious stranger who keeps getting in her way.
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Jennie Kermode ***

Director: Lee Myung-se

Writer: Lee Myung-Se, Lee Hae-Jyung

Starring: Ha Ji-Won, Kang Dong-Won, Ahn Sung-Kee, Song Young-Chang

Year: 2005

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: South Korea


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