Film Review: Lee Myung-se’s “Duelist”

One of cinema’s supreme visual stylists is Lee Myung-se, whose films have the vibrancy and kineticism of action painting, and who seemingly reinvents movies with each new film. Lee is an exacting and precise artist, with painstaking attention to detail, colors and mood, so much so that he has made only two films in the past decade, each one an art film in the truest and greatest sense. The first is his 2005 film Duelist, the latest incarnation of a story that first began life as a popular manhwa (Korean comic book) entitled Damo, which was subsequently turned into a hit television series of the same name. Both the film and the TV drama featured the same actress, Ha Ji-won, as the central female detective. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2006 New York Asian Film Festival.

The most gorgeous of this year’s selections is Lee Myung-se’s masterpiece Duelist. Lee is best known in the U.S. for his 1999 film Nowhere to Hide, which enlivened its cops-and-criminals story with a wall-to-wall visual arsenal of silhouettes, impossibly vibrant color and kineticism, and the elemental forces of wind and rain. In Duelist, released six years after Nowhere to Hide, Lee ups the ante considerably, reducing narrative to a bare minimum, concentrating on exquisite color, balletic swordplay, wind, rain, and leaves, and the pursuit of its lovers/antagonists throughout the film. Like Nowhere to Hide, Duelist is also a detective story, set this time in late 19th century Korea. The detective Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won) and her older partner Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) are in dogged pursuit of Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won), an elusive, androgynous figure who is the henchman of Minister of Defense Song (Song Yeong-chang), who is amassing power by counterfeiting currency. That’s about it as far as plot goes. However, most of the negative public and critical reaction to the film, contributing to its meager box office, which generally ran along the lines of the lament “There’s no story!”, seem to me to be beyond missing the point. The film’s press materials contain this statement by Lee, which point to the proper way to approach this film: “I thought of two words – movement and rhythm, and two paintings – ‘Dance’ by Matisse and ‘Manhattan’ by Mondrian.” (Lee is most likely referring in the latter case to “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” Mondrian’s most famous painting.)

Those who insist that films should be all about narrative and character development are blinding themselves to the thrilling experience of pure cinema that Lee offers in Duelist. In much the same way that Matisse and Mondrian sought to liberate painting by using their materials to portray pure movement and color without insisting on verisimilitude, Lee utilizes the plasticity of the film medium – sound, color, music, motion – to liberate cinema from the shackles of 19th century notions of narrative derived from literature and drama, highlighting the reasons cinema is indeed a distinct art from either.

The ultimate theme of Duelist is transcendence and transgression, of boundaries, borders, and gender roles – Nam-soon is as tough and violent, if not tougher, than her male colleagues, at one point going undercover in male drag, while Sad Eyes is all flowing robes, long hair, and soft features. Duelist is in essence avant-garde cinema thinly disguised as genre cinema, and given the emphasis he puts on color, the physicality of its nature, and its relation to the material of film itself, Lee seems to be positioning himself as Korea’s answer to Stan Brakhage.