KOREAN MOVIE REVIEW: The Duelist

Well this is a movie that I cannot for the life of me stop thinking about, and I can honestly say it is one of my all time absolute favourite movies ever and is, in my opinion at least, beyond perfect in every way.

I LOVE this weird, beautiful, tragic and romantic, surreal movie….

The Casting:

To start off, I just wanted to write a few words on the cast of this movie, beginning with Ha Ji Won.  

This performance as the detective Namsoon in this film is such a refreshing revelation and surprise for me, and I honestly loved everything about her performance here.  She is so over the top with her facial expressions and body language that it could have come across cartoonish, yet instead I found her to be raw and real as a woman who is completely ruled by her emotions with never a thought to hide those emotions from her face or her actions.

This character trait of Namsoon’s really makes her such a perfect foil for her counterpart, the mysterious Sad Eyes, an enigma of a man who keeps his thoughts and emotions hidden deep. He barely speaks throughout the entire movie, expressing himself almost entirely via his eyes in a restrained and beautifully sad performance by Kang Dong-won  (Yay! Kang Dong-won!).  

Sad Eyes quiet inertia and unquestioning obedience to his household and father figure, Minister Song, has reduced him to something less than a human being, almost just a tool to be used, an idea particularly emphasised by the fact that his true name is never once used or even remembered throughout the entire film.

The Shape of the Story:

It is interesting just how much a second watching of a film can unlock its hidden secrets.  

Going into this movie for the second time already understanding the basics of the plot just seemed to open up the narrative to me, making the story so much more accessible and linear, revealing character motivations and subtle shifts in ways I completely missed the first time.  It actually changed my opinions vastly from what I thought was originally just weird and confusing (albeit still wonderful), into something completely cohesive and clever, with a narrative and plot that makes perfect sense.

One of my favourite things, is how you can interpret (if you want to) that the entire movie is filmed as if it is a dream sequence. The way the scenes are cut together, jumping instantaneously from shot to shot, sometimes misleading and often leaving the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the blanks, truly does give the movie a strange dreamlike quality.  

And once you realise and accept this aspect of the film, I thought it really made everything much easier to decipher and understand, in the same way that strange dreams make sense at the time because you just accept their strangeness and don’t question the oddities within them.

Also, regarding the storyteller’s strange interludes, although seemingly irrelevant to the plot, (something I found jarring and hard to accept the first time I watched it) are somehow still used effectively to tie everything together (appearing at the beginning, middle and end of the film) in a way that makes the viewer almost feel like an outsider throughout the movie, looking into yet another one of the storytellers odd tales, founded in just enough truth to make us believe in it and care, but still strange and not completely real in its tragic surreal beauty.

This movie is so deeply affecting for me, it’s simple love story profoundly and emotionally moving, with the chemistry between the lead actors so strong and charged with longing that I can truly believe I am watching two people fall deeply in love.  

The Feel of the Film:

I feel like this movie is a Korean version of those very visually amazing Chinese martial arts films, such as Hero or House of Flying Daggers with their saturated colours,  gorgeous costumes and lovely imagery and quite beautiful fight scenes. 

Those films come across as being very elegant and almost clean (and tragic of course) with perhaps more of an emphasis on style over substance. But although ‘Duelist’ also concentrates on bringing us beautiful imagery and colours, it is definitely a much more earthy, almost dirty affair and, for me anyway, really contains a deep core of emotion in it’s rich but simple love story.

And it is also weird….. very very weird.


This earthiness starts right from the opening scene in the market place (I am totally ignoring the very first scene with the crazy woman in the house and the pervy dude….don’t know what that was about!).

Think grimy peasants in course clothing,  dirt and dust flying around and just the general bustle of people going about their business.

It’s such a long scene and is quite confusing, so it takes a while to figure out what exactly is happening amid the slow motion fighting and mayhem, and exactly what roles our major characters are playing.

The Story:

But what is happening is a money counterfeiting ring being run by a nobleman, which is getting investigated by some detectives and policemen.

Though I actually thought the plot was quite interesting, it’s almost beside the point in this movie, as for me, the main drawing point are the many charged encounters between the Assassin ‘Sad Eyes’ and the Detective, Namsoon.

This movie for me, was almost like a string of beautiful moments that stuck in my head long after I had finished watching, scenes that I just couldn’t stop thinking about.

The scene where Sad Eyes walks through the sunny marketplace running his fingertips over trinkets in the stalls, watched intently by Namsoon.  I think it is a powerful moment, so at odds with him being an assassin, and maybe the point where Namsoon first realises he is someone who is important.

Obviously the fightscene in the dark alleyway is another powerful moment, where a connection is built between the two as they almost dance, the scene complete with Tango music. Sexy and intense!

Although there are so many scenes I loved, the last one I will mention was the point in the raid where Sad Eye’s is surrounded and fighting for his life in the snow. He watches Namsoon as she mirrors his every movement, and so in his mind she is beside him keeping him company until the very end.  Really though she is fighting elsewhere in the house but in his mind at least, he is not alone. Beautiful and very very sad.

This movie is filled with scenes such as these, and it is those intense moments of connection between the two leads that left the deepest impression for me.

Really, below everything, this is an understated, tense with longing, love story.

THE ENDING: What does it even mean??

I have read quite a few reviews and opinions trying to figure out the ending, and sadly, try as I might (and I tried really really hard as I HATE sad endings), I do find it difficult to believe that Sad Eyes survives the raid as some have suggested.

I think he does die and when Namsoon walks down to the alley after his death, revisiting the place they had fought in earlier, she is dreaming of him.

I think it is her way of telling him she loved him, as they fight together one last time, again almost like a dance.

Another suggestion I read is that when Namsoon passes into the darkness in the alleyway, it is actually also her passing into death, and the next scene where they fight/dance is their reunion on the other side. 

I kind of like this idea too.

The very last scene in the sunny marketplace to me was like a ray of hope. I don’t think it was real, more like an echo of what might have been, or even what could happen if they meet again. Especially if you agree with the suggestion that Namsoon follows Sad eyes to the other side.

Almost like a chance to live again and maybe get it right this time.

Have you seen this movie? Tell me your thoughts!!

Lee Evie is an author of historical fiction set in old Korea, during the Joseon dynasty.

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2 thoughts on “KOREAN MOVIE REVIEW: The Duelist

  1. FINALLY someone gets me! This article almost word to word reiterated what I thought and felt after being introduced to this film, which became my all-time favorite piece of cinema forever. I still think Sad Eyes somehow survived and escaped and detective Ahn told Nam-soon he’d died so she could be free from her attachment… The soundtrack to their final showdown is literally called “A Last Duel” :))) Anyway, reading this made me relive my whole experience and remember how much I love it, thank you! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading my review! I am so glad you loved this film too, I think it is one of those styles that can be a little polarising and maybe not for everyone, but gosh I think it is such a stunning and beautiful film! I totally agree, it is absolutely one of the cinema greats!
      I really like your interpretation of the ending, and I love the idea of Sad Eyes surviving, I really hope he did! I kind of quite like how ambiguous the ending is, it really leaves you thinking and wondering, which I quite like!
      💗 💖

      Like

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