“Duelist” is probably going to be the most difficult film of Ha Ji-won week (and probably in this authors existence). Not difficult because it is bad, but rather because I am not sure I completely understood it. What I do know is that I love it.
“Duelist” tells the story of Namsoon (Ha Ji-won), a female swordsperson/undercover policewoman, during the Joseon Dynasty. Along with her partner, Ahn (Ahn Sung-kee), they hunt down a plot to flood the economy with counterfeit money. The plot is masterminded by the Minister of Defence and he is assisted by Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won). Wacky hi-jinks ensue.
The thing about this film is that I think you will either detest it or adore it. I am not sure that there can be any middle ground at all.
It is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Every scene is composed with such care. The colours are vibrant, every frame composed to perfection. Lee Myung-se does not make many films, but you could never argue with the care he puts into them. I could happily watch the film with the sound turned down and the subtitles off.
Additionally, you have to be prepared for every scene to be performed in a different style. There is comedy (both subtle and playful, and also a quite unexpected speeded-up ‘Benny Hill’ moment), action, highly stylised swordplay, a most wonderful crowd action scene done in slow-motion). It really is all over the place – BUT – each style works absolutely perfectly for the scene it is used in. This makes it sounds like a patchwork quilt of a movie, but that quilt is warm and comforting. It is hard for me not just to list every scene and gush over it.
The film plays a lot with Gender – Namsoon has masculine traits, Sad Eyes feminine ones. There is a delicious moment early on where the oft played idea of a woman dressing up as a young boy is lampooned. And then sublimely, she is forced to play a concubine, where she is so uncomfortable it is hilarious. In fact I think this is my favourite performance by Ha Ji-won – she has to display a lot of very complex acting talents, and this one film alone shows she is no one-trick pony (she was known a a bit or a horror film queen).
However, here’s the thing. There are two things going on here. There is the straightforward story I mentioned up in the synopsis. And then there is the story of the relationship between Namsoon and Sad Eyes. Enemies? Friends? Lovers? Are they the same person? Are they alive or dead? Is it all a big tall tale by our unreliable narrator?
I don’t know.
But I don’t care.
Watching this movie is a brilliant experience. Does it talk to my heart and soul like some other movies I have written about? I am not sure about that. But entertain me? Absolutely.