Blades flash, costumes dazzle and the wide screen is generally bent out of shape in “Duelist,” a South Korean martial artser that’s determined to reinvent the genre every which way. Unfortunately, helmer Lee Myung-se, in his first movie since high-octane actioner “Nowhere to Hide” (1999), forgot to spend as much time on the script as the visuals. Result is a razzle-dazzler with a distinctly lateral approach to narrative and character, two of the genre’s mainstays that any helmer ignores at peril. Distribution beyond cult ancillary looks iffy.
Much ballyhooed pic opened locally Sept. 8 on 233 screens and within three weeks was history, with only some 820,000 admissions (around $5 million). Though pic has now gone down in Korean movie lore as a high-profile dud, it’s actually nowhere near as bad as that. Rather, it’s a series of splashy moments — trailers for a film that never emerges — without any central core and with characters viewers don’t give a hoot about.
Set during the late Chosun dynasty — a couple hundred years ago — story is bookended by the distracting device, which could easily be eliminated, of a simple blacksmith’s reminiscences. Yarn proper starts with an over-rapid voiceover (better consigned to an opening caption) setting the period, which is described as a time of chaos in the kingdom as counterfeit coins are ruining the economy.
Femme detective Nam-sun (Ha Ji-weon, from “Phone”), with older male partner Ahn (vet Ahn Sung-ki), goes undercover in tomboy attire to hunt for the counterfeiters. This leads to a long set piece in a busy market that pretty much sets the tone of the whole movie. Confused, and confusing, chase-cum-fight — involving the police duo, various officials and the counterfeiters — is staged with a deliberate disregard for the normal aesthetics of martial artsers.
With characters running hither and yon, in a semi-realistic, semi-fantastical scrum, narrative mists only begin to clear with the appearance of the masked Sad Eyes (Gang Dong-weon), reputed to be the fastest sword alive. He and Nam-sun do battle, and, before he escapes, she’s fallen for him.
Back at West Police headquarters, the cops have recovered the counterfeit dyes, which appear to implicate Sad Eyes (although he killed all the crooks) in the scam along with — in one of several leaps of logic by the script — defense minister Song (Song Yeong-chang). Song’s the only guy in town with the wherewithal to produce and distribute the fake coins on a large scale. Seems he’s planning a coup d’etat with Sad Eyes.
Next hour is basically more set pieces as Nam-sun again crosses swords with Sad Eyes — in a tango-like encounter in a nighttime alley that’s the most original concept in the pic — and later goes undercover as a gi-saeng (Korean geisha). Ha is especially good in the latter sequence, mixing tomboyishness with nervousness for comic relief; but the central love story between Nam-sun and Sad Eyes never gets off the ground thanks to helmer Lee’s constant pyrotechnics.
Final two reels do develop some dramatic momentum. However, Lee tacks on yet another swordplay ballet (staged in falling snow against a black backdrop) when the end titles should already be rolling.
Print caught at the Pusan fest was some three minutes shorter than the print unspooled at Toronto and on local release. Further trimming by some 10 minutes, including the final ballet, would improve the pic by eliminating some of its repetitiveness, but would not solve its basic problems.
With Gang required to do no more than look porcelain beautiful, performance chores fall to Ha and Ahn. Latter is stuck in a semi-comic mugging role that’s distracting, to say the least; former is always photogenic but is better as a snorting tomboy than a lovestruck swordswoman. Actress previously played a period female detective in the excellent 2003 TV drama series, “Damo,” adapted from the same comic book by Bang Hak-gi, though her character had a different name and a much meatier script.
Original title literally means “Detective.”