Monday, July 18, 2011

Movie Review - Duelist

Revised Romanization: Hyeongsa
Hangul: 형사
Director: Lee Myeong Se
Runtime: 111 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Leads: Kang Dong Won, Ha Ji Won, Ahn Sung Ki

In my other two reviews to this date, the "Haunters" and the "Too Beautiful to Lie" ones, I began talking about the intro of the movie. The basic "let's see the characters now" prologue you get with most of them. However, much like the rest of the movie, the prologue here is just weird. The movie opens by throwing us into the exaggerated story of a very secondary character who doesn't even feel like he needs to be in the movie until the very end of it. As he is narrating this incident he was supposedly involved in to a bunch of equally bored dudes at a local tavern, he is interrupted by an annoyed customer who has frankly had enough of this geezer's crap.

Your vein would be popping too, if you were there

And then we get a lovely view of the market, where the introduction of the main characters happens. For real, this time. Namsoon and her team are cops. And they're going undercover to investigate a dealing that's about to go down. In comes a dancing guy, called Sad Eyes, and takes down the people exchanging the goods. For unknown, at this point, reasons. That "annoyed customer" from early on and his gang are also after said goods. Thus, all Hell breaks loose in the market and the cops have a lot of work in their hands. Catching the creepy assassin is Namsoon's job, which she kind of assigned herself to, as this guy was just too interesting to not follow. Of course, the fact that he's got killer moves and is generally hot might have something to do with her fixation.

Fangirls: They can spot a hottie even when he's wearing a mask

If the way this is going feels weird already, this might not be for you. This is a fusion sageuk movie, but it's honestly nothing like any normal movie you might have watched. It's unique and peculiar enough for it to make you love it or hate it. Some people I know have seen this and love it. Some find it utter bull and can't stand even 5 minutes of it. This movie is unique and artsy, but not so much in plot. More in style. This ain't contemporary "indie" European cinema. Those movies are weird without the style. This is make-your-eyeballs-pop-and-give-you-multiple-nerdgasms eye-candy with a story simple enough for the viewer to keep up and focus on how things are told, rather than why. It's a movie written by its director who focuses on his directing.

And making fangirls like me drool

However, don't be quick to say "Ok, no story, just fancy visuals". Because in most of these cases, the story feels like it was just an attempt to make some basic plot while focusing on the visuals, music etc. Lee Myung Se doesn't do that. He's not trying to shove a story in there. He's made sure the story has enough of what it needs to support his vision. So even if simple, it's there. It's just not the reason to watch this movie. This movie is about two people found on very opposite ends of the law and their "own little world" they make when they interact. And that interaction and what you make of it is what's awesome here. Also, let's not fool ourselves. It's visually stunning and it uses genius methods of what is essentially visual art to tell the story. I'll get to all these soon. One by one.

A little word about "Damo" here. Some people might wonder about this. Damo is a korean drama/series, starring Ha Ji Won and it is based on the same manhwa (manga) as Duelist. And that's about where the similarities end, from what I hear. It's like comparing Disney's Snow White to Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Might be based on the same story, but one is a cartoon and the other a creepy twisted thriller. With Sigourney Weaver being a major and supernatural bitch, I might add, which was lovely to watch, really. So, don't think that because you liked Damo, you will like this. Or vice versa. A friend of mine and fellow Kang Dong Won fan from D-Addicts liked them both so that might work for you too, but I've read it's not exactly a safe bet.

The Story and Characters

There's some coin counterfeiting going on and Sad Eyes, as well as the police, are connected to it and on opposite sides. He's an assassin working for the bad guy, she's the cop that has to catch him. And they dig each other and all... As this isn't a story-heavy movie, it's also not a character-heavy one. The story is basic and simple. The characters, however, feel a bit richer than that. That is due to a very good cast who knew how to approach the story and roles and convey what they needed to. The actual progressing of the story happens in these very neatly divided sequences, each very distinct due to the setting, the characters involved and the overall visual quality of them.

As for the interaction between Namsoon and Sad Eyes, that's where we got a very unique storytelling method. But first, a little about the characters. Namsoon is quite the tomboy. She is downright loud and seems to lack any feminine refinement. She is a female cop in the Joseon Dynasty. She has to act tough and she has to mean business. But she also has her other side. The one that is a person, not just a tool, the one that has feelings and softness and understanding. She also has passion as a woman and sensuality. All of those things are drawn out by Sad Eyes in their encounters. He brings out the softness in her, and also the weaknesses.

And the fangirl

Sad Eyes is a person less easy to understand. Not because he lacks a personality, but because no one has ever bothered with it. He is an assassin. He exists to carry out missions, not talk about how he feels over a cup of tea. Well, he drinks the tea, but without doing the talking. He also has very few lines during the movie. Sad Eyes is very much defined by his name. He is a seemingly emotionless and empty person. However, like he brings out the woman in Namsoon, Namsoon brings out the sparks of humanity and independent thinking in him. He is moved. He actually changes expressions when with this woman, instead of being just a room decoration who receives orders and doesn't have a thought of his own.

It can actually smile too

These two characters don't "court" each other in the usual means. You won't see any dating happening, conventional or unconventional. These two fight it out. What other couples would do to say "You're hot. I think I'd like to date you. I want you nao!", these two just translate into fighting. Which, of course, is more like dancing. And for which I'll be talking a bit later. There are some other characters in this worth noting, specifically Detective Ahn and the Minister of Defence. They are the forces that drive both Namsoon and Sad Eyes away from their "relationship" and back into the reality of their lives so far, their duties and obligations. The difference is that Ahn is doing this with love towards Namsoon while the Minister is sullying and ruining Sad Eyes with his behavior and twisted morals.

Just look at that smug face

The Cast

The Cast is really well chosen for this work. It's a tricky script because it provides very little for them to go by. The actors had to think a lot about how to portray the characters and how to feel in their place. Kang Dong Won said that Lee did not give him more than a general description of Sad Eyes as a "mysterious henchman" and he felt like it was left up to him to fill in the blanks about how he should act. Lee seems to have done that a lot, not only with the actors but also crew. He is not someone looking for an easy answer, however. Like all such directors, he is very clear on what he wants and what he doesn't. But it seems he chose a talented cast and crew and gave them the chance to be creative, while at the same time checking up on the work to make sure it was something unique, but also something he could use as he envisioned it. When you gather talented people around and let them create, wonderful things happen.

More specifically about the cast now, obviously, we have our main leading lady, Ha Ji Won. This woman is really a lovely actress. She makes Namsoon absolutely tomboyish and impulsive and genuine, but her transitions between the emotions she goes through as well as her portrayal of Namsoon's more feminine and passionate side are wonderful to watch. Namsoon can be a bit of a shock to people seeing the movie for the first time as she, along with detective Ahn, begin as very exaggerated, almost slapstick, nutty characters, but watch it enough times and you can really see the work Ha Ji Won has put into it. She manages to tie all the sides of Namsoon together and make her seem like a very "wear my heart on my sleeve" character instead of a moody psychopath. I think lesser actresses would be too confused by the character and the theatrical style of the movie to really be able to pull things together like she did.

There are better, but she's good and professional

Kang Dong Won didn't have an easy task either. Far from it. Seeing as Sad Eyes rarely talks and he expresses emotions more faint than a washing machine does. Unless you pay attention, that is. Kang Dong Won has done a good job maintaining a poker face, while still showing Sad Eyes' emotions about the things that are happening. He does not feel cut off from the world. Just determined not to show what he feels unless he has a "moment of weakness" and it slips out. And when it does slip out, you really feel for the character. You see a person in there, but no one ever cared to let him out. It's a tough job for many actors to fill in the blanks for characters and Sad Eyes is full of blanks around him. And I feel Dong Won has filled them well.

There is a vast difference between soulless acting and acting soulless

The collaboration and chemistry between the two, however, is what shows just how good these two are. From the more technical issues of fighting/dancing to how they react to each other's words and actions, these two look like in perfect sync. Many would fall into the trap of trying to look cool themselves instead of creating a space for both of them to shine, but not these two. They complement each other very well indeed. This has been very carefully done in the movie and the actors' part is just one piece of this beautiful unity.

And then we have Ahn Sung Ki. What can someone say about an actor like him? He's been around for a loooooong long time and you can see it in how he works. Detective Ahn is a peculiar person at first. He's total slapstick and plain weird. He seems kind of useless, in fact. That is, until you realize he is not the same person when it's time to get serious. He loves Namsoon like a daughter and a friend and he is dead serious when the work demands it, despite his weird comedy act. And Ahn Seung Ki does very well in balancing those. It takes a world of charisma to make the viewer change his/her view of the character from a silly useless old geezer of a cop to a means-business detective in a few seconds. Again, an example of a character who could be so very one-dimensional if not for a great actor to portray him.

And that is how you make a clown badass

The Minister is Sad Eyes' "boss". He is also a very interesting character. Kind of the opposite of Detective Ahn in his relationship with his subordinate. Not much emphasis is given to him as he is more of a straight up typical villain, but Song Young Chang was a good choice. He's very intense and expressive. He usually plays a bit hyper and quite bossy characters and he's good at it. But he's more subtle here, while maintaining that intensity, just keeping it more contained and focused. Which makes it more intense, actually.

He sure does mean old bastard very well

The rest of the cast is fine for what they do and Yoon Joo Sang, who plays that seemingly insignificant character I mentioned, is also a nice treat. He's always a treat.

What You See

There are so many things to say about this, the thought of writing them all and attempting to show such beauty in screenshots scares and excites me at the same time. The movie is pure eyecandy. Let's divide them into some categories for the sake of neatness and sanity. Both mine and yours who are not bored of reading yet. I'm guessing there are very few of you. XD

The Material Things: Meaning sets, make up, clothes, props etc. All the things that are actually there. This is largely filmed in a studio and using green-screen. It's quite a "small" movie when we talk about visual field. It takes place in a village and there are only 2-3 scenes that show a horizon beyond some alley or a house complex. The sets themselves are lovely. Like with most things in this movie, there wasn't much attention to historical accuracy. Things are Joseon Dynasty in spirit, but Lee basically let all these people run wilder with what they could do. One good example would be how they dyed all of the fabric in the movie (a LOT of fabric) again to make the colors even more intense naturally. Another would be the representation of the Red Light District. It's "what they could look like back then", without going nuts over what history buffs would say about it. Another interesting trivia is Sad Eyes' hair. It's supposed to resemble an eagle and it looks fancy, but also looks a bit like he couldn't decide on what length to cut them and just settled for a variety of them. But his style fits the rest of the movie, so it actually feels right at home.

A Post-Production Thing: The movie plays with light and dark a lot. There's a lot of effects and the movie is heavily processed, but it does not look overly done or offending. And the darkened segments play a part in the fighting as well. The light feels like a spotlight without being one. Throwing one character in light with the other in the dark and then reversing it. So that they both get "light time". It's really not something I can explain with text. I ain't that good.

The Directing: Well, this one takes the cake. Interesting angles, very creative ways of filming and moving the characters on-screen, an absolutely brilliant visual style. He uses slow motion in a wonderful way and he does very bold things too. There is actually a scene that's going fast and with chipmunk voices. Namsoon and Ahn are chasing a guy and the two of them combined can't get a hold of him. It's basically a display of how seemingly useless they are and although the way the scene is done can be a complete "WTF" moment for some, I personally enjoyed it. Very unique and surely not everyone's cup of tea, but Lee's directing is very technically superior and creatively as well. Lee Myung Se knows his stuff. It's just that his stuff might not be to everyone's liking.

The Dance: Remember waaay back when I mentioned the chemistry between the leads? Well, during fighting scenes, that chemistry could basically burn your TV set. The "foreplay" between Namsoon and Sad Eyes happens in the form of duels. These are two people who are trained as soldiers. And they meet in their "work" capacity. So, when they do end up having at it, it's a fight/dance. You get the feeling that the last thing these two have on their mind is fighting and they are basically just fondling each other's weapons and dancing instead of actually trying to hurt each other. And then you need to open a window... The actors trained in several fighting and martial arts techniques as well as modern dancing such as tango for about 5 months before the movie started filming. So, they feel very natural man- and woman-handling their partner. The fact that they are both gorgeous, charismatic and very charming helps. A lot. They got nice moves and they use them well. This is one sensual movie, without being sexual or in bad taste.

What You Hear

When you have such an aesthetically pleasing movie, you'd need a soundtrack that is equally good. And the soundtrack for Duelist is one of the best I've heard. It's absolutely brilliant and breathtaking. There are mixed genres in here, including a tango piece and there is use of modern instruments such as electric guitar as well. It has very strong pieces, sadder slower ones, sensual ones. Anything this movie would need.

Also, it's important to note how actively the music participates in the movie. It's not there just as background noise, but it is used to also tell the story through it. There is one memorable scene where there is this hard guitar solo playing on top of a soft piano piece. The two tracks seem nonmatching and more like a mistake and a cacophony, but they describe Namsoon's state of mind. She is sad, she is angry, she wants to kick ass, but she is also hurt. When she gets to the point of (temporarily) calming down and being unable to let her anger out, the guitar piece is slowly fading, leaving the more romantic and melancholic piano piece playing. The music actually describes how she feels and although it distracts you a bit if you don't "get it", it also throws you right into how she's feeling. It's not just on the screen, it's in your ears and it gets to you more.

Not the kind of person you want to see, or hear, when she's angry

Also, the ending song is lovely and I personally love the version sung by the leads, Ha Ji Won and Kang Dong Won, which plays at the end credits of the movie. I just find their version has much more feeling than that on the official soundtrack, sung by professional singers. I've described why I think that is in a previous post of mine about a song Kang Dong Won sang for another Lee movie, M. The sound effects for the movie are also lovely. Lots of strong sounds for the weapons, the killings and even the movement. It's a stylized film and it shows in how it uses sound as well.

I remember one scene that always impresses me, as it was the first time I noticed this, was when we first see Sad Eyes' face, in the opening part of the movie. There is complete mayhem around him in a busy market all going haywire. But the sounds of the market fade and we see him place his sword back in its scabbard when there is this almost otherworldly screeching or screaming sound which is apparently the troops blowing a whistle as they storm into the market. Thing is, it also sounds a bit like metal as it enters its case. It somehow "frames" his moves while being a "logical" sound to exist in the surroundings. Combine that with the beautiful track that is playing at that moment and the directing, as well as Sad Eyes' firm but soulless look and you have a very captivating scene indeed.

And a very dazed fangirl too

Some Things To Wrap Up

This is a love story. And it's a story of attraction. It's a story of duty and conflict between what is right and what your heart needs. But it is an artsy eyecandy type of film. It has a peculiar set of characters, it's very theatrical and over-the-top at times and it's unique. Unless you "click" with Lee Myung Se and his style, the movie will seem boring and the characters and story detached. As for what artsy movies are usually obsessed about, "meaning", maybe he has something to say, maybe he just wanted to make a kick ass visual art piece. But he doesn't enforce thinking on the viewer and depriving them of the things they want and need to see from a movie. If you want to think about it, fine, but it's splendid enough as an artful piece of cinema to not make you feel it was time wasted. That is, if you appreciate the art put into it and the beautiful outcome. Like I said, less artistically inclined people might find it a total piece of crap. It's really one of those movies you need to see in order to judge.

Although I'd think most people (with eyes and a brain) would at least appreciate the art in it

Who Will Like It

People who appreciate all things beautiful. People with an appreciation for art in general. People interested in cinematography. Anyone who can appreciate eyecandy without going nuts about things like "Oh my God! I don't get it! Why does the moon look so big and yellow?!? It's a mistake!" or "Why is there football game sounds in a scene from Joseon?!?! It's weird!". And trust me, those make the scene so much more fun, if you can get over the fact that it's a movie and can afford to be a bit weird if it at least makes sense and gives you something nice to watch. It's fusion sageuk. If you can't handle some "fantasy", you just made a big mistake reading this big review of mine or watching the movie, if you have.


This is PERFECT for what it is. Lee did exactly what he wanted and it came out being 100%, with the combined forces and talents of everyone who participated. These people worked hard, they took initiatives and they made it work. It is a feast of the senses and a display of art of many forms, combined to make a stunning film, a visual poem. It's got a really good cast which keeps the looney characters grounded and interesting to watch. It's not a movie for the masses or focused on people pleasing, but for those who do tune into it well, it's a masterpiece. On the Fanboy Scale: Namsoon is not usually girly and is frankly a crazy hag when she's not fighting. But damn, is this a beautiful lady. Ha Ji Won. Her presence here gives this some fanboy value, even if she is the only female main character in the movie.

Stunning AND natural, which is getting more and more rare for S.Korea

On the Fangirl Scale: Through the roof. Why?

Well now...

If a tall charming man with killer moves, long hair, a deep sexy voice and dressed in beautiful Korean period clothes doesn't wave your flag (because of the getup, if nothing else), you are either too picky for your own good or really not used to eastern cultures. And you are definitely not a fangirl.

Photos credited as the links show. Information taken from Asianmediawiki, Hancinema, the interwebs and all.

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