Beautiful and talented Ha Ji-Won ("Slave Love", "Phone") plays the impetuous young detective Namsoon, while seasoned Ahn Sung-ki ("Silmido", "Arahan") plays her dumbfounded partner detective Ahn, in this story of greed and love in ancient Korea.
Chaos reigns as the country is flooded with counterfeit coins, sending the economy into a tailspin, and Namsoon is charged with finding the man responsible for this atrocity. In the midst of a sting operation in a crowded marketplace all hell breaks lose and in the confusion a killer reveals himself, as he slaughters his targets right in front of the surprised government officials.
When Namsoon comes face to face with the assassin, she falls in love with him right then and there. As she and Ahn begins to dig into the case she has a hard time focusing. The mysterious man haunts her day and night...
"Duelist" strikes an uneasy pose between soulful art film and fall-flat-on-your-face slapstick comedy. A combination that might have worked, had the director not chosen to tell his story in the most obnoxious way imaginable.
Director Lee Myung-se's last film was the iconic cop-thriller "Nowhere to Hide". I know this film has a strong following, but I found it impossible to watch, thanks in no small part to the awful visual style Lee has developed. A style so devoid of timing and finesse that his mental capacity could rightfully be called into question. He uses every trick in the book regardless of whether they're appropriate or not. "Nowhere to Hide" was bad, but "Duelist" is actually worse.
This is a catalogue of the worst ways to get from one image to another - Lee uses them all. Half the cuts in this film are made by letting objects pass in front of the camera, the other half by using dissolves.
Let me get a little technical for a moment.
An object passing in front of the camera is not a proper way to cut. Why not? Because it's a gimmick. When used correctly it can be a wink to the audience, but if used too much it breaks the fourth wall. It reminds the viewer that we are watching a film, and thus takes us out of the story. It's also a very "current" gimmick, which makes it even less usable in a period film such as this.
The dissolve is another story. It not only takes us from one image to another, it also creates a mood. It slows the pace and indicates that some time has passed. A dissolve can be perfect if there's a change of scenery in a film, or if there's a shift in time, but not location (e.g. it's afternoon, and then we cut to a night scene in the same place). It doesn't work when it's used within a scene - it just confuses.
When these techniques are used incorrectly, they create a muddled impression and that's the biggest problem with "Duelist". Throw in a couple of George Lucas wipes (I call them this because they are so prominently featured in the original "Star Wars" trilogy) and you'll have a vomit inducing look that had me retching and reaching for the eject button after about 10 minutes.
But it doesn't stop there. Lee also uses blur-motion shots (the kind where everything looks washed out), still image montages (God, I hate those) and even some Benny Hill inspired high-speed sequences, complete with looney music. I'm not sure which of these techniques is the most annoying, perhaps we should just ban them all?
Then there's the story. Like I said, the film is a mix of comedy and drama, but there's nothing remotely funny about the story itself, and there's really no reason to include those comedy moments that plague the film. Also there's no rhythm in the storytelling, and often no purpose behind the "randomly strung together" scenes. It's a mystery to me how it's possible to mess up such a (basically) simple story. It would have been so simple to create a wild sprawling epic based on this idea. I can only assume the fault lies with director Lee Myung-se.
Finally we're treated to some absurdly cartoonish overacting from the two leads. The usually reliable Ahn Sung-ki looks like a host from a morning TV-show for kids, as he jumps around and makes (un)funny faces. Meanwhile Ha Ji-won recycles her performances from past teen-flicks, and it just doesn't work. Usually she's adorable, but here she's downright distracting. I don't get it. She can easily do serious drama, why force her to make a fool of herself like this? It's not all her fault, though, her character is a mess. I found it especially frustrating that the film didn't see fit to give any reason for her infatuation with the assassin.
Remember that 20 minute sequence near the end of "2001: A space Odyssey", where the hapless spaceman travels through the atmosphere of Jupiter in an impressive display of hallucinating colors? It's beautiful, sure, for about 2 seconds, then it becomes annoying, and after a while you just want the bloody thing to end. Sorta the same way I felt about "Duelist".
When you get right down to it, the film doesn't have a single redeeming feature. It's rubbish from start to finish. Utter rubbish. Pressing that eject button has rarely felt better.