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Duelist (12A)



Dir. Lee Myung-se, South Korea, 2007, 108 mins

Cast: Ha Ji-won, Kang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki

Review by Richard Mellor

The mentality of this movie dawns suddenly. Twenty forgettable minutes have been spent establishing a budget good-versus-evil plot. There have been various fights and fisticuffs of marginal excitement, a whole lot of agitated scurrying around a madcap Chinese market and scarcely any pause for thought. There is so far, it is fair to say, a dearth of quality and no little cause for concern. Alarm bells are silently ringing and every critic in the room is scribbling the word 'turkey' into otherwise empty notebooks.

Then without a moment's warning, the umpteenth sword fight dramatically speeds up. The two opponents begin to move around at lizard speed as the scene is shown as if in fast forward; cheerful, cartoon caper music floods the cinema. It's something straight out of Laurel & Hardy, positively Chaplin-esque or even somewhat akin to a Carry On film. In the blink of a lens, Duelist consciously becomes as silly as it has thus far seemed, losing any sense of sobriety.

Only with this unlikely episode under its belt is Lee Myung-se's film truly revealed for what it is: a movie with no time for pretension or intrigue. For its remainder, Duelist is a hideously enjoyable, carefree chunk of cinematic fun. The stress is firmly on style over substance, and boy is there some style on offer. Fiercely passionate sword fights are accompanied by great tumults of orchestral music; multicoloured drapes and gauze are sliced open by blades swung with abandon; dazzling floods of light rotate with musty darkness; a rollicking rhythm is established.

In such a decadent, almost orgiastic arena, the plot matters little, existing only to provide a basic narrative from which Lee launches his reverie. But for the sake of reviewer duties, here it is: sometime in medieval Korea, corrupt minister Song (Song Young-chang) is producing counterfeit money in a bid for absolute power, all the while covering up his tracks with the help of an implausibly agile and skilled swordsman, known only as Sad Eyes (Kang). Up against this tricky pair is knife-wielding detective Namsoon (Ha), and her laconic partner Ahn (actor also named Ahn). As battle lines are drawn, Namsoon falls in ill-timed love with the eponymous enigma.

The initial scenes take place within a small market town, as the fake cash causes poverty and desperate scuffles. Namsoon quickly corners her future amour, but finds his ability to hang in the air, vanish and run faster than the local tigers hard to contain. Duelist's second half occurs mainly within Song's lavish palace, as the minster's force meets that of the police in impossibly grandiose and well-choreographed sword exchanges, all to the tune of deafening symphonies. The pace only slows for Namsoon and Sad Eyes' increasingly regular exchanges, as the pair swap withering looks instead of steel blows.

If you like to have any more than a vague sense of what's going on in front of you, Duelist may not be for you. By the time the grand finale nears, Lee's film is crescendo after crescendo of lush colour, noise and action. In terms of cinematography, it's an incredible achievement; as far as cinema goes, this constitutes a sensual, instinctive reverie rather than anything intuitive or especially rational. The Laurel & Hardy parallel is ultimately misleading – this is not a film that patches together parts of previous movies, or offers intermittent, gimmicky set pieces. Rather it is one long, delicious dream with its own authentic éclat.

At times Duelist's slapstick mentality and unashamed facile characters do become tiresome. The film is weakest in attempting emotional depth; it's hard to feel too sorry for a couple in the grips of an impossible love moments after they've conducted their latest attempt to rip each other to shreds. The closing sequence, as Namsoon and Sad Eyes fuse into clouds (still trading amorous blows) is almost too much – it's an almost macabre combination of classic Asian cinema artistry and a perverse S&M. They say arguments are healthy, but perhaps not with knifes and rapiers.

But even the most hardened cynic or fun-denying Scrooge will struggle to leave the screen not smiling, such is the élan and dazzling beauty of what's offered up. In a recent review, this same ignorant critic suggested a film ought to be relevant or simply not made at all. Duelist is a marvellous riposte to that errant standpoint – it's a gleeful, intoxicating feast of irrelevance, and knowingly so. I doubt anyone has ever enjoyed more being proved wrong.

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