Arty Martial Arts
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Duelist (Hyeongsa) (2007)
17th Mar 07
A young lady police officer and a mysterious swordsman from the wrong side of the law fall in love amongst a backdrop of political unrest and social upheaval.
Review Duelist has something of a confusing opening scene. It takes place at a market, where a masked swordsman is performing, peking opera style, in the middle of a crowded square. Things become chaotic when a fight between two groups breaks out and a wagon full of money gets caught in between. Sure enough the money is spilt, everyone tries to grab the money for themselves. This is where the undercover cops get involved; Ahn the wiser older one and Namsoon the hot headed female try to resolve the situation, but Namsoon meets her match in the form of the masked swordsman, and the first of many duels between the two characters take place. She splits his mask but he escapes to fight another day,
Things get more complicated however when it is soon discovered that the money recovered from the market brawl turns out to be counterfeit. It turns out that this is a problem and the country is being flooded with the stuff, which is a real problem as at this particular time in history – in the late Chosun Dynasty era – there was great social unrest and the imbalance caused to the economy by an influx of counterfeit cash could be hugely detrimental to the government, which is something defence minister Piljoon Song is hoping for. His plan is to take control of the army, and then the country of course, but conditions must be right. It doesn’t take Namsoon and Ahn long to realise that the counterfeit trail is directly related to the masked swordsmen from the beginning, and that his connection to defence minister is the key to solving the case. But despite being on alternate sides of the law, Namsoon and the swordsman, who we only ever know as Sad Eyes, find themselves drawn to each other and, through a series of unusually balletic and even romantic martial-arts duels, fall in love. But eventually it becomes clear that duty comes first; his to his master, hers to the law, and that the ultimate showdown between the two must come sooner rather than later.
Of course, while you’re watching Duelist some of the above is not entirely clear. To say the Duelist has an artistic take on the martial arts flick is a massive understatement. Lush colours, beautiful costumes and an incredible amount of over styling permeate every facet of this movie, which by all counts is quite an assault of the senses, but special credit needs to go to the choreography of the sword fighting as it lends more to the rhythm of dances like the Tango than the polished fighting of say a Jet Li movie. Whether or not this is a good thing however is in the eye of the beholder. There’s no doubt that on the whole the movie looks breathtaking, but in the same way that some will be blown away others might find themselves alienated by such an unusual style. And, back to my original point, it can be quite confusing as to what’s going on as the narrative regularly slips into offbeat dreamy montage style as the two leads ponder over the forbidden love. Similarly, the difference between desire and reality blur too, with at one point even death not being enough to break their love, adding extra and unnecessary complications to the mix.
But, when all is said and done, it has to be said that films like Duelist don’t come along very often. Despite an overly artful tone, it is a film which demands attention and, while this may not be the kind of piece you rush out to by when it is released on DVD, it’s certainly one that will stay with you once you have seen it. It reminds me perhaps of how we all used to watch art films while at college to impress the chicks, only to realise that these arty films weren’t all that bad after all and maybe there was more to life that bullets, babes and zombies. Well, actually I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d certainly give Duelist a go if you think you can handle a bit more stylisation than we’re normally used to.