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24 8월, 2007

So Stylish it Hurts

The Duelist. I don't know why I am so enamoured of this piece, but love it I do. I had never heard of director Lee Myung Se before this movie, but he is also the director of Nowhere to Hide (1999) another Korean cinematic great or so I've been told. A fusion saeguk (historical or period) piece, Duelist tells the tale of a female police inspector in old school Korea investigating the sudden increase in counterfeit currency threatening to undermine the nation. Her investigations lead her to an enigmatic, nameless, assasin cum thief with connections to the highest circles of power. Oh dear, and she thinks he's cute too.

Duelist has all the hallmarks of a wuxia movie but side-steps the genre altogether. Wuxia according to wikipedia means "martial (arts) heroes, [and] is a distinct quasi-fantasy sub-genre of the martial arts genre in literature, television and cinema". Don't be lulled into thinking of people flourishing swords in trees or on water, however. What you get with Lee is frenetic, freeze-frame cinematography, graceful, agile sword fighting, a touching romance and I must say, the most entertaining use of music in cinema I've heard in ages.

This is a spectacle in the very best sense. Our minds our flooded with one arresting frame after another, so much so we almost get annoyed with the story telling for getting in the way of what we are watching and what we hear. Even the soundtrack, with its tango, rock, even circus vibe, is everything but typical and is just as much a part of the movie. In one particular sequence he layers two quite dissonant songs creating a harsh duet that serves as a narrator for the turmoil both characters feel.

Lee creates so much of a visual and audio impact that it sometimes seemed like the story was secondary to the images and sounds he was trying to impress on us and therein lies the rub; we actually do need some story to make us a little more attached to the characters. There is some rudimentary beginings in there about the nameless assasin and the master he serves, but it never fully gathers momentum leaving quite an empty unresolved feeling its place. Same goes for the romance. You feel the chemistry between the two leads, the passion that reaches out each time they engage in a throwdown is phenomenal. It feels empty though, as all we get are short, intense flashes of emotion that don't develop when they aren't together.

From all accounts, Lee values style over substance and this movie, rightly or wrongly, has been criticised as being the embodiment of that tenet. He has a refreshing style that is reminiscent of what someone once said of Missy Elliot; he's found a room in the [film-making] mansion that no one else realised was there. His next film, M- Movie (2007) has been making a tour of the festival circuit, and I for one, am waiting on tenterhooks.

I could keep waxing lyrical about this movie, but I'll stop now. Let's just say I liked it a lot.

4.95 out of 5 More story next time. Please!

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