Duelist shares M's visual beauty along with its fragmented narrative style. It's not hard to get the basic story in either film but you do need to step back and just go with the flow rather than keeping notes on how A leads to B leads to C, and so on. Set in the Joseon Dynasty, the story here is your basic good (in this case) girl cop falling for the bad guy she's supposed to capture and put behind bars, with the romantic angle competing with, and coloring, the chase. There's a mystical twist to it too, wherein the would be lovers don't do a lot of talking to one another, instead, they fight. With swords. This allows director Lee to stage some dramatic and very elegant battle scenes, but the motivation here is romance so the dueling is presented as dance rather than combat, and probably won't satisfy fans of traditional action movies. There's a lot of killing but very little blood. The battles are emotional, internalized and stylized without all the grunting and macho posturing that usually accompanies this kind of action.
One of the many dualities of the film is the unrefined, gut level nature of the cops versus the refined ways of aristocratic bad guys. Another is the way the cat and mouse game shifts back and forth between sleuthing and the romance. The Duelist knows the young lady cop is infatuated with him, that his capable mysteriousness in matters of crime and conflict occupies her heart as well as her head. So he toys with her. She is his equal in combat but not in love and he uses this to his advantage.
Ha Ji-won shines in her role as the young police officer who plays the mouse to the Duelist cat. She gets to be goofy, girly, and kick ass all at once. You can tell she is doing most of her own stunts and she's got surprisingly good comic timing. This film is also quite funny at times. A lot of the humor is of the bumbling kind but it's not cheap slapstick. It's more good natured (unfair to characterize it as) loser type struggle. Veteran actor Ahn Sung-Kee, who elevates every film he is in, plays mentor to Ha Ji-won, and he's just great. Supermodel Kang Dong-Won plays the Duelist, named "Sad Eyes", and does a respectable job of playing a hairstyle with depth.
Duelist is a beautiful, if loosely constructed film that won't satisfy hardcore action fans. For me, even though the fighting scenes were mostly stylized dance pieces, and the film wouldn't work without them, there were just too many of them for me to want to watch the film again and enjoy all the other good stuff about it. Take a look at the clip below to see how awesome this guy is at shooting film and marrying music to it.
Director: Lee Myung-se
Starring: Ha Ji-won, Ahn Sung-Kee, Kang Dong-Won