[K-FILM REVIEWS] 형사 Duelist (Part 1)

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[K-FILM REVIEWS] 형사 Duelist (Part 1)

형사 Duelist

Duelist - KOREA 2005
Hyeongsa Duelist (lit. Detective)

111 Minutes - 35mm Cinemascope 2.35:1 - Colour
Produced by: 프러덕션 M (Production M), 웰메이드 엔터테인먼트 (Wellmade Entertainment)
Distributed By: 코리아 픽쳐스 (Korea Pictures)
International Sales: The Core Studio

Opening Day: 09/08/2005
Rating: 12 and Over
Box Office: 1,197,914 Nationwide Admissions

Director - 감독
이명세 (Lee Myung-Se)

하지원 (Ha Ji-Won), 강동원 (Kang Dong-Won), 안성기 (Ahn Sung-Gi), 송영창 (Song Young-Chang), 윤주상 (Yoon Joo-Sang), 도용구 (Do Yong-Goo), 배중식 (Bae Jong-Shik), 박명신 (Park Myung-Shin), 박승호 (Park Seung-Ho), 서동수 (Seo Dong-Soo) - CAMEO: 김보연 (Kim Bo-Yeon), 이한위 (Lee Han-Wi), 김태욱 (Kim Tae-Wook)

Writer - 각본: 이명세 (Lee Myung-Se), 이해경 (Lee Hae-Kyung)
Executive Producer - 제작: 유정희 (Yoo Jung-Hee), 고미희 (Go Mi-Hee), 이명세 (Lee Myung-Se)
Producer - 프로듀서: 오은실 (Oh Eun-Shil), 오수미 (Oh Soo-Mi)
Cinematography - 촬영: 황기석 (Hwang Gi-Seok)
Lighting - 조명: 신경만 (Shin Kyung-Man)
Music - 음악: 조성우 (Jo Sung-Woo)
Editor - 편집: 고임표 (Go Im-Pyo)
Art Director - 미술: 김시용 (Kim Shi-Yong), 홍주희 (Hong Joo-Hee), 조근현 (Jo Geun-Hyun), 이형주 (Lee Hyung-Joo)


- 25회 한국영화평론가협회상 (25th Korean Critics Association Awards) - 최우수 작품상 (BEST FILM)
- 25회 한국영화평론가협회상 (25th Korean Critics Association Awards) - 감독상 (BEST DIRECTOR, Lee Myung-Se)
- 25회 한국영화평론가협회상 (25th Korean Critics Association Awards) - 촬영상 (BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY, Hwang Gi-Seok)
- 25회 한국영화평론가협회상 (25th Korean Critics Association Awards) - 영평상 10대 영화 (Best 10 Films of the Year)


"Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the beginning was the word." - Stan Brakhage

Memories, images and sounds inside our minds. Floating, flowing like water, occasionally re-emerging, feeling as fresh as the first time we experienced them; sometimes reminding us of why we live the way we do, or why we go through so many efforts to continue doing that. Those who started watching Korean films a few years ago might remember a few details about their first acquaintances with Chungmuro, but I bet they remember clearly what made them interested in this little country's cinematic output for the first time. Their 'first love', so to speak. That moment when you're not sure whether it's love, or you're just experiencing something new and unexpected, a sort of confusion, chaos, something you can't clearly define. My first date with that kind of film didn't quite produce the results I expected: my best friend, who introduced me to Korean films many moons ago, said I'd absolutely love it, given time. But all that exaggeration, all those cliches put on screen with such reckless abandon for storytelling structure, all that over-the-top acting put me off. I clearly remember telling him: "You're smoking. What's so good about it?". All he did was smirk, with one of those strange looks, almost implying that one day he would look at me again, saying "I told you so."

After that first viewing, I kept feeling strange. I still clearly sensed why I disliked the film, yet I couldn't help but think about it again. And again. I was confused, why was I spending so much time thinking about something I didn't even like? I tried to find answers, but couldn't come up with anything. A couple of weeks passed, and nothing changed, but I finally decided to re-experience all that. I watched the film a second time, and while I still disliked it, I started a slow immersion which in a few months led that strange little flick to become what was then my favorite Korean film of all time. It took a good dozen 'dates' and almost a year, but falling into that mysterious vortex of genre elements, put together in wildly anarchic fashion, became strangely and increasingly appealing. I started forgetting about what I considered 'flaws' at the beginning, and accepted that film's world, its unique rhythm and language, dynamics, visuals. And today I'm here, with that friend always smirking every time I sit down to watch any of one of my favourite directors' works. Lee Myung-Se's 1995 film 남자는 괴로워 (Bitter and Sweet) became that "first love" for me.

Just like many other great artists, Director Lee never had an easy childhood. He was even sent home from the military, as his presence and 'wicked individualism' often caused him death threats. Debuting in Chungmuro in the late Seventies, Lee worked for veteran Kim Su-Yong on films like 달려라 만석아 (Man-Suk, Run!) and 빨주노초파남보 (Rainbow), before finally becoming assistant director. In the 80s he met Bae Chang-Ho, who back then ruled the Korean box office with films like the 고래사냥 (Whale Hunting) series, and became one of the most influential and acclaimed directors of the decade. The time was ripe for Lee to finally debut as a director, as production methods were starting to change in the Chungmuro of the mid-to-late 80s, but he could never get his first project off the blocks. He always planned to start with a 사극 (Historical Drama), but could never find the budget or right conditions to do it. The genre was the perfect launchpad to develop his cinematic world, because the period film and its visuals, its historical background (removed from 'modern' realism) would allow him to move freely. Yet, his debut was completely different. 1988's 개그맨 (Gagman) shocked Chungmuro, still in the midst of important changes and in a seemingly eternal period of transition.

The film was supposed to debut in the Christmas season at the Danseongsa Theater that year, and distributors Taeheung Pictures, Lee Tae-Won's company which worked with Im Kwon-Taek for nearly two decades, saw huge potential. But after the press screening, most people had a bleak look on their faces, noting that this was never going to be a box office success. The only Korean film doing well at the box office that year was Yoo Jin-Seon's 매춘 (Prostitute), and Bertolucci's The Last Emperor dominated for most of the year. What's even worse, the release of the Bruce Willis action 'classic' Die Hard and its huge popularity at the box office severely hampered 'Gagman' and its box office run. Its main advertisement was withdrawn, and the film was pulled from most theaters. But thanks to word of mouth from a group of core followers and extremely positive reviews from certain critics (including Lee's longtime friend Kang Han-Seop) the film screened kept screening, for much longer than anyone could ever expect. The reason was obvious: 'Gagman' is one of the shiniest highlights of the decade, and one of the best debut films Korean Cinema had ever seen, on par with Jang Joon-Hwan's masterful 지구를 지켜라! (Save The Green Planet) and Ryu Seung-Wan's 죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나 (Die Bad).

Starring Ahn Sung-Gi as a third rate comedian who thinks he has everything to become a great film director; Bae Chang-Ho as a barber who dreams of becoming an actor, and Hwang Shin-Hye as an unlikely femme fatale, the three cook up a robbery the likes of which you could only see in a Lee Myung-Se film, still one of the funniest, wildest scenes in Korean Cinema history. Part anti-gangster comedy, part parody of Hollywood hits like Bonnie & Clyde, with a familiar yet charming humanism; incredibly funny yet bittersweet, with lots of playful cliches but also tremendous creativity, 'Gagman' perfectly exemplified the situation Chungmuro was in during the final days of the 80s. The ideas were certainly there, and with the relaxing of censorship, the canvas to express them was even wider. Now what was left to achieve were technological infrastructures and the business model to live up to that potential, but most importantly the confidence to make all that creativity shine. Lee was one of the first to show Korean Cinema could achieve that, and 'Gagman' is still one of his best works.

The early 90s were conflicting and very confusing for Lee. His second film 나의 사랑 나의 신부 (My Love, My Bride) did extremely well, starring Choi Jin-Shil and Park Joong-Hoon in a wild sendoff of the romantic comedy genre, which sort of started the big trend, although it was 1992's 결혼 이야기 (Wedding Story) which really alerted everyone in the industry about the genre's box office potential. Yet one of his best films, the 1993 melodrama 첫사랑 (First Love), sold a mere 5,000 tickets. One of the best scripts written in the 90s, the film starred Kim Hye-Soo in what's still her best performance, as a young woman experiencing first love, growing and maturing thanks to it, with an almost fairy-tale like vision of her relationship with an older man (played by Lee regular Song Young-Chang). Although 'My Love, My Bride' had already shown bits and pieces of what would become Lee's representative visual style, 'First Love' showed even more effectively his ability to mix various ways of conveying emotions through visual means (animation, stills, poems, sometimes even cheesy visual effects), somewhat removed from the textual narrative. But that unique style found its most striking portrayal in 'Bitter and Sweet'. The story was as simple as they get: a week in the life of a salaryman (Ahn Sung-Gi), all his crazy struggles to break the glass ceiling and advance in a constantly changing society, and the pressure the company had on his family life. But beyond the surface of exaggerated motions and awkward production values was an irresistible rhythm, a mix of Chaplin and Buster Keaton's energy, the 'visual storytelling' of early silent films, and a healthy dose of social commentary about Korea's economic growth, all done with a huge tongue in cheek, Lee Myung-Se style.

It was panned by critics, who didn't see Lee was merely turning the genre on its head, taking 'family melodramas' of the 60s like 박서방 (Mr. Park) and injecting new vibe to their tropes, just like what he did for romantic comedies in 'My Love, My Bride' and puppy-love melodramas in 'First Love'. 'Bitter and Sweet' might have been a huge flop, but it started paving the way for the kind of filmmaker Lee has become today. He began to create his own unique brand of filmmaking, somewhere in between Stan Brakhage's brilliant experimental madness and Wong Kar-Wai's romantic visual humanism. He started paying less attention than ever on the narrative structure of films, and focused on the rhythm and dynamics which were the basis for the first silent movies, rediscovering that sense of movement and 'movie magic' which had long been sacrificed to focus on dialogue, character arcs and linear storytelling techniques. Even his return to melodramas in 지독한 사랑 (Their Last Love Affair) was an answer to the antics of landmark melodramas like 미워도 다시 한번 (Love Me Once Again) and 자유부인 (Madame Freedom), which were responsible for creating the roots of Koreans' most beloved genre. The love scenes between Kim Gab-Soo and Kang Su-Yeon were like a ballet, always conveying a certain sense of movement and creative use of the actors' bodies -- in some ways similar to Yeo Gyun-Dong's 2000 film 미인 (La Belle), which alas suffers from poor casting but does bear some similarities to this film (sans Lee's sense of humour).

It would be the next film which would put him on the International map though, and remind Chungmuro he wasn't a one-hit wonder trying to repeat his past feats. Lee was preparing a period action film, and even went to Japan for location hunting, but for a variety of reasons decided to opt for a more modern setting. After spending 3 months with a group of detectives from Incheon, Lee wrote 인정사정 볼것 없다 (Nowhere To Hide). Detective Woo (Park Joong-Hoon) and Kim (Jang Dong-Gun), along with runaway criminal Jang Sung-Min (Ahn Sung-Gi) were based on real life figures, and Lee tried to offer a new version of the police procedural, even going as far as making fun of Kang Woo-Suk's 'sacred cow' 투캅스 (Two Cops), one of the first Korean films of the 90s to strike a chord with the public -- which, ironically, starred Ahn and Park just like in 'Nowhere To Hide'. Using The Bee Gees' 'Holiday' during a murder scene, and even a punk rock version of Song Dae-Gwan's trot classic 해뜰날 (by the great pop-rock band Cherry Filter), Lee made it instantly clear he wasn't going to follow the rules. He wasn't interested in whodunit shenanigans or buddy movie cliches, but instead focused on the thrill of the chase. Movement and rhythm, once again, culminating in that fantastic confrontation under the rain.

'Nowhere To Hide' was a big success at home, landing in fourth place that year at the box office, and brought Lee International fame a few months later, when the film made its way to several Festivals. But some viewers started bringing to the table some of the criticism Lee faced at home: that his films had no substance, only style. The drama in his films was weak, the characters developed badly or not at all, and all those different genre elements didn't gel together. Yet, the director also acquired a group of followers, who saw in his films exactly what the people he was compared to (Tarantino and John Woo...) failed to do: create something fresh, original, and exciting. 'Nowhere To Hide' was unlike any other 'action' film they had seen in Hollywood or Hong Kong. Foes would dance to tango on rooftoops while fighting, punch like characters from a manga, run for miles without stopping; you could find slapstick comedy, melodrama, gangster comedy tropes, visual tricks that would make Christopher Doyle giggle on his seat, and a sense the images were telling the story, and rhythm was leading the film. No exposition, no solemn dialogue, no flashbacks and similar tricks: just images, sound, action, movement... the magic of movies, as they were always intended to be. Stripped from genre tropes and genre itself, from 'proper' narrative techniques, from the idea that cliches are bad even when you use them to do something fresh and interesting. Lee Myung-Se opened his cinematic world for everyone to see, and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would grow interested.

The spring of 2000. Korean Cinema was right in the middle of the 반칙왕 (The Foul King) craze, and the 한류 (Korean Wave) was starting to move its first serious steps with Yoon Seok-Ho's 가 을동화 (Autumn Fairy Tale). In the midst of all this media frenzy, Lee Myung-Se left for the US, for what would become a very important part of his life. He established a relationship with the Scott brothers (Ridley and Tony), who were impressed by his latest work, and thanks to his visual style, he was brought in to shoot CFs. Most people think of this period as the failed beginning of another John Woo-like adventure, but Lee mostly used those few years to sit back, relax, and study how the industry was evolving around him. At first he was offered Van Damme flicks because people misunderstood 'Nowhere To Hide', and he even thought about making horror films -- a certain Miriam, which might still come into fruition -- but action was his calling card to International fame, so eventually he decided to turn back to that. New Amsterdam Entertainment, producers of the TV Series Dune and a few George Romero films, were ready to start filming on one of his projects -- called Hitmen -- but Jeff Bridges, who was supposed to star in the film, didn't feel working with an unknown foreign director who couldn't speak English well was the best of ideas, so it all went up in flames.

Lee continued working with New Amsterdam, and it seemed like Beautiful Country (starring Nick Nolte) would become his first project in the US. But after reading the script and not finding it up to his standards, he put that film in the backburner too. During this time, Lee even took the initial steps on two possible follow ups to 'Nowhere To Hide', forming a virtual trilogy. If the 1999 film was the 추적 (chase) part, he would follow with a 미궁 (mystery) part and finally a 대결 (confrontation) part. This second film even had a working title -- 형사수첩 (The Detective Notebook) -- and was about a serial killer and the investigation surrounding his murders, but Bong Joon-Ho ended up exploring that goldmine with his 2003 masterpiece 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder), so Lee gave up. After a half decade of ups and downs he decided to give that third part, about the 'confrontation', a try. Almost a decade after his debut, Lee would finally get the chance to make that Historical Drama he always dreamed about. Now the conditions were perfect, with a Wuxia craze in the International market, genre which never worked really well in Korea, at least in the modern Chungmuro, but could certainly appeal to a Western Audience. And so the legendary trials and tribulations of 형사 Duelist began.

The first problem Lee faced was that created by the tropes of the genre. One of the most striking aspects of Historical Dramas has always been their social and historical background. From the allegory between the Three Kingdoms (Shilla, Baekje and Goguryeo) and modern Korean regionalism in Lee Joon-Ik's 황산벌 (Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield) to political strife in the Joseon Dynasty in Park Jong-Won's masterful 영원한 제국 (The Eternal Empire), the genre had always this 'educational' element, this ability to show life in a different era, and how it could possibly apply to the modern age through allegory. But Lee merely used the historical background as a McGuffin: removing ourselves more and more from the reality of our everyday life, the history in 'Duelist' is nothing more than a costume Lee puts on to tell us we shouldn't be concerned about time and society, which allows us to see the bigger picture and what the director was aiming at: pure cinematic essence, visuals and movement, and nothing else. It's a controversial technique, but not too different from Hong Sang-Soo's decision of shooting 오! 수정 (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors) in black & white, to force us to focus on the dialogue and the characters. But of course Lee uses this for the opposite effect: focus on everything but the dialogue and the characters, or at least their 'development'. This puts the viewer in an interesting, if somewhat frustrating position: we're given a certain input, that of the historical setting, but then Lee plays with history the way he wants.

Bang Hak-Gi's original manhwa 다모 남순이 (Damo Nam-Soon), which this film is (very, very) loosely based on, clearly used the background of the Joseon Dynasty in a very eclectic way, escaping from the tropes of manhwa's with an historical setting. But Lee never cared. Talking about this aspect of the film, he commented you could change the period to Shilla, and it wouldn't affect the film one bit. Even the dialogue isn't affected, as Lee mostly uses 사투리 (local dialect) instead of the 'old Korean' spoken in the Joseon Dynasty. The costumes are wild and colourful, a far cry from the 백의민족 (The White Clad Folk, now synonym for people in the Joseon Dynasty) society so eloquently portrayed in countless Historical Dramas on TV and the big screen. They're instead functional to the film itself: they help movement, they strike a chord with the viewer in a visual sense, there's no particular connection to the history presented in the source material. Another important point is action, always a crucial part of Wuxia and Historical Dramas. Western audiences, treated to sumptuous exotica like Zhang Yimou's recent films or Ang Lee's 臥虎將龍 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), or those influenced by Hong Kong Wuxia of the Shaw Brothers period, tend have certain expectations regarding the genre. But once again, almost with a grin on his face, Lee Myung-Se disrupts and challenges those expectations. What he offers is, as he calls it, 'not an action film, but film action'. That is, movement, action which flows along with the rhythm of the film. Like Ahn Sung-Gi's frenetic movement in 'Bitter and Sweet', the ballet-like sex of 'Their Last Love Affair', or Park Joong-Hoon's thuggish power-walking in 'Nowhere To Hide', Lee uses the body language of his actors and their confrontation to convey something else. It's like sex, only this time it's swords and knives grinding against each other, instead of kisses and embraces.

This communication with the viewer through visual means has always been a staple of Lee's films, ever since his debut. Some people, talking negatively about the film, compared 'Duelist' to a two hour Music Video, but in essence this is the complete opposite of that: Music Videos use images as a background to support the music, whereas this film uses sound and images as the film's main way of communicating with the viewer. When Nam-Soon (Ha Ji-Won) and Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-Won) square off for the first time in the shadow, we're not witnessing two martial arts masters showing all their finesse, but simply the only way they can communicate their attraction to each other without betraying their nature. Besides, well trained 'Wuxia eyes' would never be satisfied, as the level of wire action in Korea is not up to level of Hong Kong. And, as the flop of 무영검 (Shadowless Sword) showed, most Koreans don't really care about traditional Wuxia, finding its 'exaggeration' a little too off-putting, especially if you look at how realistic the action on most Korean films is. Looking at this film with the fixed motions and styles of the Wuxia formula in mind will only end up leading you astray, as Lee never intended to use action as an element separated from the flow of the film -- as in the notorious 'let's stop and have an action scene' moments in Jackie Chan films -- but instead use the movement within the action to progress his visual storytelling. This is why the actors took tango lessons even before starting their martial arts training, and why what we're seeing is more a ballet between two people in love than an action scene.

Let's go even further: if you look at the relationship between Nam-Soon and her followers (Ahn Sung-Gi on top), against Sad Eyes and Byung-Pan (Song Young-Chang), you'll see how this film quickly becomes a Romeo & Juliet with hanbok, more than another 英雄 (Hero) clone. The two love each other, but they're divided by their profession, their status and affiliation, and that can only lead to tragedy. Certainly that might seem like too easy an explanation, but why not? Lee admitted it himself, that instead of comparing the film to Zhang Yimou's recent films or 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon', this is merely a 'Nowhere To Hide in the Joseon Dynasty', or a Korean reworking of Shakespeare. By not developing the characters beyond a quick introduction, by throwing us right into the mix (just like in 'Nowhere To Hide'), without tricky flashbacks to explain the characters' motivation, Lee seems to admit there's a limitation to what film can achieve on a storytelling sense. Do we really need to know about Nam-Soon's past, or why Sad Eyes keeps serving his master? Not really. Do we need to see the two slowly engage in courtmanship, to see their relationship bloom at the end? No. The early silent films were much simpler, rougher and unsophisticated than what we see today, at least if you filter them through the sentiments of today's moviegoing populace. Yet they had a magnetic charm, that sense this new invention, moving pictures, would change the world. Lee Myung-Se's work is not easy to appreciate, because it brings backs that charm of the early days, but also forces the viewers to think about the images, since they're not fed narrative explanations.

Another problem the film will face comes from the source material, already represented in the cult TV Drama 다모 (Damo). Now, while Lee Jae-Gyu's 2003 MBC Drama didn't exactly follow the manhwa to a T, Lee Myung-Se's use of the original work is merely a starting point: we have a female detective in the Joseon Dynasty, a ring of counterfeit money and a possible culprit, and then the characters' evolution take a completely different turn. The character development in the TV Drama slightly betrayed the source material by always resorting to the 'melodrama code', with our heroine constantly needing the help of the men she loved (or had an emotional attraction to), whereas Bang Hak-Gi's Damo is much more independent and spirited. In this respect, 'Duelist' is a little closer to the manhwa, but that's only looking at the surface. From the first moment Ha Ji-Won pops on the screen, the way she reacts and moves instantly reminds of Detective Woo from 'Nowhere To Hide' -- there's that obvious visual cue of group of detectives walking together, which is almost a frame-by-frame reworking of an early scene in the 1999 film. And while 'Damo's Chae-Ok kept everything but the strongest feelings to herself, while she moved with the grace of a butterfly even during her confrontations, the Nam-Soon in 'Duelist' swears a storm, acts like a drunken fool, and erupts with emotion from beginning to end. This may create some discomfort for those who enjoyed or even loved -- I'm thinking about the millions of 다모폐인 (Damo PyeIn, the 'Crippled By Damo') -- Ha's character in the TV Drama, which makes a 180 degrees turn in this film.

But this is just one of Lee's many ways to throw off our expectations. Ahn Sung-Gi, the 극민배우 (national actor) who created a sophisticated image over the years, goofs around for the entire film, whereas people rather expected another Jang Sung-Min, quiet and with that killer gaze. Hardly characters you can instantly fall for, but finding sympathy or empathy for the characters was never really Lee's goal. And if you keep 'Nowhere To Hide' in mind, then their antics will be a lot more familiar: think of Ha Ji-Won as the Park Joong-Hoon of the film, with Ahn Sung-Gi playing Jang Dong-Gun, and and Kang Dong-Won playing Ahn Sung-Gi... then things instantly start to become a little clearer. Of course you could think of their acting as an exaggerated mess, but then you'd be failing to see the point. Ahn Sung-Gi overacted in all of Lee's films, from 'Gagman', passing from 'Bitter and Sweet' to 'Nowhere To Hide'. Park Joong-Hoon did the same, both in 'My Love, My Bride' and 'Nowhere To Hide'. So they're not giving a 'bad performance', but acting over the top on purpose, because that's exactly what Lee wants. It's like when an NBA player slam dunks, or Ronaldinho does his tricks in a soccer match... they don't really need to do that, but it adds to the flavour of film language.

This vortex of images, sounds, wild mood swings and visual cues are the elements which always made up Lee Myung-Se's world, and they continue to play a crucial part in 'Duelist'. Using broad slapstick comedy which reminds of early silent films, visual techniques of black and white expressionist films, and camerawork which emphasizes rhythm over everything else, 'Duelist' is like a 110 Minutes soccer march, or a festival: it has slower and faster moments, but it constantly moves, it flows from one end of the spectrum to the other, unpredictably. You never know where it will lead, and the end result might not even live up to your expectations. But it's the thrill of the movement, the film language itself which keeps you glued to the screen. This film lives for that sense of confrontation: the love/hate confrontation between Nam-Soon and Sad Eyes, its way of dueling with cliches and genre tropes which make us lazy viewers, always asking for new things but then unable to appreciate someone trying something completely different, and even the confrontation between those who love and hate the film. From beginning to end a long confrontation, screaming and hitting us with all its violence, waking films up from the mannerisms they have fallen into. And for achieving that in such spectacular fashion, 'Duelist' is one of the year's most important cinematic achievements.

Duelist' is not a wuxia, not a comedy, a melodrama, a detective flick or an historical drama. It's a fusion of all those elements to form something unique, something only Lee Myung-Se can make. Asked about what the 'M' in his production company meant, Lee said it might mean Metiere (French for artisan), Myung-Se, McGuffin, Money, or even Movement. After watching 'Duelist', I think I've found what it means, at least to me: magic, movie magic.

Soundtrack/Sound Effects Only Track

That of the 'sound only' track is certainly not a novelty in the Korean DVD Market, but for some reason I never paid much attention to it. Most of the time it seemed like a trick to show off a good soundtrack, and little more. But for Lee Myung-Se, it all becomes different. This track has everything but the dialogue, so even foley effects are in. The effect is akin to watching a 'new age' silent film, with subtitles (Korean or English, your choice) playing the role of the old text-based frames. If you had to ask me how this affects the film beyond that, I'd say the power of Jo Sung-Woo's marvelous soundtrack, and the exquisite sound design come alive. There's a scene which seems contradictory on the surface, when Nam-Soon confronts Sad Eyes and screams, with guitar riffs playing over a delicate piano version of the main theme. But removed of all the screams, this makes Lee's intentions even clearer: what we're witnessing is simply a fight between lovers, with the guitars playing the 'rage' part, and the piano theme the underlying sentiment between the two. It's all pretty subtle and even a little too complicated for its own good, but I certainly enjoyed the chance to experience it. What's even better is that with this track you can fully experience how much this films flows smoothly from scene to scene, keeping a constant movement. When you stop focusing on the dialogue and the story, what you're left with is pure cinematic essence: music, images, sweating, breathing, the noise of swords hitting each other, like two lovers having sex. If you think about it, this track makes you understand Lee's vision even more, which is why it was essential to put it here. I doubt you'll enjoy it if you disliked (or even hated) the film, but it's another chance to get closer to the man's intentions and style.


An excellent transfer, with a few little problems. Colours are absolutely fantastic, as it's to be expected from a Lee Myung-Se film (and an enterOne DVD), but detail could have been a lot better, especially with all the talk of Digital Intermediate and the like in the extra features. The other issue is something which will only affect a really small minority, that of Interlacing problems on a couple of scenes, especially the one at the marketplace when Sad Eyes moves to a red background. Now, I couldn't notice this on my 40" Tv, but while doing caps on the PC it showed up. I looked it up on a friend's projector, and while it's not really anything which ruins the viewing (I mean, since when do people look at movies in freeze frame, analyzing frame by frame of every scene? It's like stopping while walking on the street every twenty steps to check for errant ants, lest you might crush them), if you know where to look, it'll show up. There was a big fuss about this over at DVD Prime, with people who did the authoring joining, and frankly I couldn't care less who's right or wrong. Whether it's a little or a significant problem depends on how much of a videophile vs cinephile you are. But I watched the film three times before ever noticing this, and even after knowing about the 'problem', I still forgot about it pretty quickly, as it happens in two- three spots of a 2 hours film. But sound is just fantastic. It's not just the action and great soundtrack, but the incredibly detailed sound design. When Ahn Sung-Gi goes in and out of frame talking with a suspect, you hear the flow of his dialogue smoothly moving around the surround speakers, like a leaf moved by the wind. At the marketplace, when it seems all silent (during slow motion), you hear subtle noises (breathing, wind, the sound of chaos, I don't know what it is, but it sounds marvelous), and that's just a few examples. Sublime job, one of the best audio tracks of the year. In terms of subtitles, we're par for the course with enterOne's standard. Doesn't stink up the place trying to replicate the dialect, translation is fairly literal and doesn't take too many liberties, and generally there's a nice flow which makes the comedy work more than I expected. There's only a small caveat, a 1 Minutes little 'explanation' happening during the marketplace scene, which tries to introduce the story, out of nowhere. This is not part of the film, and wasn't in the Korean subtitles either, so I wonder if it's something which was added to screenings overseas (maybe Todd, Kurt or the others who attended the screening of the film at the last TIFF know if this happened there too?). It's quite an awkward moment, as if they didn't trust the intention of the director, and had to somehow explain what was going on. But the rest is quite good, nice timing, and perfectly readable font.


Audio Commentary with Director Lee Myung-Se, Ha Ji-Won, Kang Dong-Won, Ahn Sung-Gi

Lee Myung-Se is certainly not someone who doesn't like talking about his films, but since there haven't been many chances of hearing him dp that on DVD, this release is all the more interesting. If you speak a little Korean, you'll instantly notice Lee likes to call everyone 형 (hyeong, 'older brother'), even when it comes to someone decades his junior like Kang Dong-Won. Predictably nice listen, more fun than informative. It stays rather scene-specific for most of its running time, but there's lots of info and anecdotes from the shoot. Quite entertaining. Here's a few highlights:

- The four start joking about each other's previous experiences with audio commentaries. Ha Ji-Won did two just like Kang Dong-Won, so Ahn Sung-Gi and Director Lee were the only ones who were experiencing this for the first time (which is more of a shame than anything, as 'Nowhere To Hide' and the upcoming release of 'Gagman' are the only Lee Myung-Se works on DVD). The initial scene with Kim Bo-Yeon, who's still as graceful as ever, was actually the first scene they shot, long before they started principal photography. This was at an MBC set, and Ahn was there too, even though he didn't have any scenes to shoot that day. The four use this opportunity to note how many of Lee's regulars came back for this film, starting obviously from Ahn Sung-Gi himself, who starred in 4 of Lee's 7 films, but also all the minor characters, like Yoo Joon-Sang, who was memorable as the hyperactive director in 남자는 괴로워 (Bitter and Sweet).
- Ha Ji-Won comments that more than action and dance training, the hardest thing for her was getting used to the walking style Lee wanted from her. Of course walking with a very masculine posturing like that can be hard for any woman, more because she kept forgetting about it than any particular physical reason. But Lee jokes that she was at her prettiest walking like that, like a penguin (while Kang thinks she looked even cuter when she tells Sad Eyes to stop later). The four comment about the exhilarating marketplace scene, and how dangerous and hard for everyone involved it was. But, thankfully, nobody got seriously hurt, and the final result was spectacular.
- Lee talks about the reaction some of his friends in the US had watching the film, comparing it to a rock opera, or a 'love poem ballet.' Also, about Ahn's speech patterns (which he practiced non-stop for six months), they said it reminded them of pansori or rap. Ha and Kang admit how the action scenes weren't easy to understand or shoot on the set, but once they were done, looking at the monitor showed them how good they looked. They also comment that during the course of the filming, they lost weight considerably, especially Kang, whose face shows a significant difference as the film progresses. Ahn notes how two unique things which emerged from this film was the setting, especially that tavern, and how colourful most of the costumes were (opposed to traditional Hanbok in Historical Dramas). Ha joked her scene spying on the minister was the first time she ever climbed on a tree, so it was a constant struggle between focusing on her acting, and trying to calm her fear and nervousness. During the scene when Nam-Soon tries to find Sad Eyes, Lee didn't want to create a feeling of cops going after a killer, but someone losing his loved one and looking for him.
- Finally, the four talk about the long rehearsal process, which at the end helped them a lot, especially during ensemble scenes -- like the ones with the other detectives. Lee says teamwork is one of the most important things when shooting films, as finding each other's acting rhythm and tone, and adapting to it makes it all much easier. Because of Ahn's relaxed, charismatic performance, Ha was able to forget she was working with a senior, and let all her emotions flow into the character, without worries. Talking about each other's NGs, Ha commented that since most of what she did in this film was a new experience for her, everything seemed difficult at first. Kang mostly had it hard with the action scenes, not only because of the physicality involved, but also when trying to find the right rhythm and flow for the scene.

Audio Commentary with Director Lee Myung-Se, Music Director Jo Sung-Woo, Film Critic Kang Han-Seop

In one word, fantastic. This is as good as the Kim Young-Jin commentary on the 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) DVD. Think of it more as a guide to interpret the film instead of a simple commentary, and the fact Kang Han-Seop understands Lee's way of making films helps even more. Incredibly fascinating, lots of fun, and certainly a must listen. Here's some highlights:

- The three set this baby on fire right from the first moment. Lee introduces himself as 'the first 21st Century Director Lee Myung-Se', and of course Jo Sung-Woo has been a long collaborator on his films, and finally Kang is a very prominent critic (and an excellent pen, I might say), along with a longtime friend of the director. They start talking about the beginning of the film, and how in your average film, the beginning establishes right off the bat what we're looking at. Through the first few minutes of a film, people imagine which genre it will belong to, and then tend to lose focus later on. But with this beginning, Lee wanted to completely tear to pieces that idea, leaving that confusion and curiosity open, so we can keep focusing on the film. According to Lee, this beginning is simply a McGuffin he uses to keep the audience with him, to let them continuously guess what this film will be about. Who's Kim Bo-Yeon's character, what importance will she have in the rest of the film? Just like the beginning of 지독한 사랑 (Their Last Love Affair), when people sort of expected a love story, Lee throws off their expectations by changing track. After all, Lee's own production company starts with an M for various reasons: it's officially metiere (장인, 'artisan' in French), but Lee gave it that name based on the idea of McGuffin. And what's a McGuffin? A way to make the viewers connect with the film. So, in a way, this beginning stresses the importance of abandoning genre expectations and focusing on the film itself. And all the visual cues Lee uses to do that are simply a McGuffin.
- Talking about the fantastic marketplace scene, Lee discussed with Composer Jo how he wanted to mix various sentiments and elements of the film in this scene: you had melodrama, action, comedy, all those different feelings which needed the right soundtrack to sustain their rhythm. So they used rock, 'sport music', circus music and more. Kang brings up an essential element of Lee's films, that they're simply about the anarchy of movement. They make you think about the essence of Cinema, which originally meant Moving Images), and looking at the real meaning between 'film' in various languages always brings that back. The film brings the viewers into this accident at the marketplace, but there's very little dialogue, there's no explanation of what's going on, and this simply emphasizes the sense of curiosity you might feel about the film. When watching films, people have certain expectations, in particular related to the stars (especially if you're Korean, or familiar with the stars in the film). Who's the detective and who's the criminal, who are the good and bad guys? But Lee keeps this suspense going. Looking at older films, like those of Sam Peckinpah, you could see a certain beauty within the violence portrayed on screen, and feel something from that sense of movement. Lee says it's not because we enjoy violence per se, but because we're born with a violent primal instinct, which we suppress as we grow up. When we experience something which awakens that primal instinct, we feel something, even without knowing it. That scent, the nostalgia of that primal instinct comes alive. And Lee is after that primal feeling and its movement, that aesthetic and dynamic beauty coming from violence, not its technical (action styles) or narrative (why the action is happening) merits.
- Kang mentions how the reaction of the netizens was wildly contested (love/hate, really), and that it seems many people still demand a certain type of storyline and dramatic elements. Just like in the marketplace, which in other Historical Dramas might have shown certain cultural aspects (traditional clothes, objects, sounds). But by getting rid of all those aspects (keeping a vague historical background as the film's setting. This could be anywhere from early Three Kingdoms to late Joseon Dynasty), the characters move more freely inside this canvas. Commenting about that first chase scene between Nam-Soon, Ahn and the suspect, it sort of gives a silent film vibe. Lee comments that, even though nowadays video is all over the place (mobile phones, cars, internet, TV, everything), people aren't fully used yet to sense of movement within the moving pictures, which is why they keep complaining when someone tries something new, or just focuses on that movement. As an example, when Ahn Sung-Gi starts talking really fast, Lee wanted a sort of pansori or rap-like feeling. Dialogue intended as music, which in turns becomes movement itself. Ahn practiced for a few months to get everything right, and the sound design team worked really hard in trying to get this sense of movement across (if you check this scene, his voice goes from one speaker to the other perfectly as the character goes in and out of the frame), just like the noise knives make can generate the same feeling. The problem with this use of the surround channels is that not all theaters, especially those outside Seoul, are equipped to take advantage of such technology, so some viewers might feel bad about that aspect of the film, and their problems with the film might also come in part because of that. People tell him there's no drama in his films, but he thinks music can be drama too. That nervousness and rhythm music express can make you feel something, along with the sound design. It all helps the flow of the film, which is a melting pot of those elements.
- Again talking about the ecstasy of movement in Lee's films, Kang comments that it's hard to fall for its charms if you don't drop your curiosity for the story. That's just an hindrance, which after you get rid of can open yourself to how naturally the film flows from mood to mood, from scene to scene, and so on. It's the kind of film you enjoy more after repeated viewing, a kind of drug you can't get rid of. Like a Mondriant or Matisse painting, there's a certain rhythm within the images, and even within the music. Of course that also applies to the action. With their first confrontation, Lee asked from Ha Ji-Won and Kang Dong-Won to keep intact the kind of melody (of movement) action can convey, but also the feeling of a first meeting, a first date between the characters. This is also evident in the choice of music, which is both soft and sweet but highlights the action, and then turns into tango (this has become a tradition for Lee). He actually got the idea from the script of a film he was preparing in the us, an horror called Miriam. Since this might actually become his next film -- it's part of a couple of projects he postponed while in the US, the other being Division -- it could be a spoiler, but he liked the idea of a fantasy within the ordinary life of the characters (which, if you look at the final scene, kind of explains it all, that chaos or 'dream' of the first love). Do people need a reason to fall in love, and does a filmmaker really need to explain that?
- The three bring up a really important argument: how genre expectations shape marketing and investment, and even how viewers react to films. After all, Lee was able to fund his film easily, because investors expected an average Wuxia, the hottest genre in the International scene right now; and viewers themselves got excited about the film, even those who didn't know Lee Myung-Se, because of the combination of production values and technical expertise of the Korean industry, used to make another film in a popular genre. But then again, if you think about Wuxia and Historical Dramas, especially with a Korean setting (or, say, Joseon Dynasty, specifically) they create certain preconceptions: the hair should be in a certain way, like the clothes (here we go again with the 백의민족, white clad folk), food, music... everything. But Lee simply strips the film of all those elements, so that with sound and images he can let things flows easily, in what should be a more accessible way for the viewer. Although he admits certain elements of the story need to be explained, more than trying at all costs to do something different, he's constantly thinking about ways to speed the process, keep the film moving, without unnecessary breaks of exposition. That's why rock works in that marketplace scene, and even in the exhibition in front of the minister, because it keeps the film flowing. Yet the Joseon Dynasty had no rock music. Lee notes how people had strange reactions at the Toronto Film Festival, mostly because they came to the theater with a certain baggage of their own, called preconceptions: wuxia should be like this, have this element, use it that way. Lee might have been an assistant director on Historical Dramas like 황진이 (Hwang Jin-Yi) in the 80s, but he understand trying to replicate reality at all costs is futile, because essentially you're giving an interpretation of what might have happened. So by abandoning that obsession with realism which comes with the genre, he makes it easier for the viewer to concentrate on the film.
- About the performances in the film, Lee says he wanted to erase Ahn Sung-Gi's image of 국민배우 (national actor), and find the real actor behind that. Kang says he found a new Ha Ji-Won watching this film, and it was the first time he really felt her presence as an actress. What Lee did with her was getting rid of all the preconceptions she had regarding her image, and try to find what was inside her. He also said Kang Dong-Won has good learning and concentration skills, and will become a nice actor if he keeps that desire about the profession he's shown. Lee also says because the subtext of the film, the 'first love' encounter and story between Nam-Soon and Sad Eyes, was something we had seen many times before, ever since Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and countless films, he struggled to find a way to communicate this obvious, predictable story in a way which could feel fresh and vibrant. So using movement, transitions, gestures and body language he tried to portray their relationship in a different way. Like he said in a previous interview, while subject and genre of recent Korean films might be varied, there isn't a difference in terms of film style itself, which is why 'Duelist' felt so different to many people.
- Something people complained about was the fact this film doesn't stick to a particular genre, and it jumps from slapstick comedy to action, from high octane melodrama to circus-like comedy. But, as he always tells actors, Lee says there's no genre, no character, no tone. People don't have a fixed character, they're a melting pot of different emotions and sensibilities, so that's the way he always goes. He doesn't try on purpose to put emphasis on a particular element of the film, they all come out flowing together, mixing, connecting with each other like in a continuous, anarchic vortex. And when people wait for the big plot developments, that's when they lose the point of his films. It's like watching a film about a 기생 (female 'entertainers' in the Joseon Dynasty), and waiting, waiting and waiting until she takes off her clothes, and acts like 'someone like her should'. If it doesn't happen and she keeps her clothes on, then people feel betrayed. The same happens with the narrative in Lee's films. People expect futile explanations Lee never gives, and at the end feel betrayed by their absence. Kang feels that 'Duelist' is an important film as it might be the first to usher in the era of the digital, the 'video era', or the film wrapping up the past and connecting to the future. He notes how the visuals and sound in the film tend to appeal more to very young and older viewers, whereas people around college age tend to have more problems with the film, as they tend to frame it within 'storytelling'' structure.
- Finally, Kang jokingly comments that the film was called 'Duelist' as it all moves (pun intended) towards the final confrontation, and you could say everything before that scene is a huge, giant McGuffin. It's like when you write letters to your mother back in your hometown: you spend time thanking her, asking her how she's doing... and then at the end ask her for money. That he uses video to reach that point is because visuals are the first, the primal, the original source of information. And there's nobody, either in Korea or abroad, who can do a film like this, which is exactly why they call it this way. Not a Wuxia, not a melodrama, not an action flick, but a 'Lee Myung-Se film'. Or as Lee says, '나의 사랑, 나의 영화 (My Love, My Cinema)', 나의 첫사랑 (My First Love), 나의 지독한 사랑 (My Last Love Affair)'.


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Isao KFebruary 17, 2006 12:28 PM

Holy hell, you weren't kidding about this review. Great stuff. Now, on to part 2.

BTW, I actually did see Die Hard during its long-assed run at the DanSungSa theater in December 1988. Man, that takes me back.

KurtFebruary 18, 2006 2:56 AM

Very, Very thorough stuff X! I like the fact that the DAMO TV series review is close by too! I feel like I'm being givin the condensed primer of one aspect of Korean Culture, and am thankful for it.

Your statement: "which make us lazy viewers, always asking for new things but then unable to appreciate someone trying something completely different, and even the confrontation between those who love and hate the film"

Is appropriate to my first viewing of THE DUELIST (a movie that I found frustrating to no end!), which was my first viewing of a Lee Myung-Se film.

A similar analogy that comes to mind would be the first time you taste Beer as a child. It was likely off-putting and too intense (bitter) or outside your experience (alcohol)...But you likely come back to it later and appreciate the complexity.

Taking elements of the familiar, recontextualizing and generally mixing them up into something which is in some ways known, in other ways violating many of the known rules also applies to Canadian director Guy Maddin. Your comments comparing aspects of Lee Myung-Se films to the basic silent cinema also brought that to mind.

maceyJuly 18, 2006 1:39 AM

hey i love kang dong won....he's so HOTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!...well especially in duelist...why arn't there that many pictures of him in long hair?????....