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Duelist Limited Edition
NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is a Korean import and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. [Recommended Region Free Players] It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
Lee Myeong-se's 2005 film The Duelist is an excellent blend of arthouse melodrama, action, comedy and suspense with a whole lot of romance thrown into the mix – in short, this one has it all, but is it enough?
The film, set years ago in the era of the Joseon Dynasty, follows a young police officer named Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) who, along with her fellow officers, discovers a counterfeit ring operating out of the area they've been assigned to protect. It doesn't stop there, however, as the criminals aren't just printing up their own money but they plan to use it to topple the economy and take down the government. As her investigative work continues, Namsoon soon makes the acquaintance of a young man known only as Sad Eyes (Gang Dong-won), for the way that he looks out at you from underneath his hair – he doesn't say much, but he's got that look and that's all it takes to pique Namsoon's interest in him, even if she shouldn't be thinking those thoughts about someone she might have to toss in jail. Of course, Namsoon can't deny her feelings even if the object of her affection belongs behind bars, and it's not long before she's starting to act on her emotions.
The Duelist is a movie of images, first and foremost. There are long stretches without any dialogue at all and the vast majority of the rather simple storyline is told visually. We first get to know our two central characters when they are in conflict, as Namsoon stalks her prey through the area and the two clash as their very positions in life instantly put them at odds with one another. As their obvious attraction to one another grows this becomes almost a game to them, it's like they're two high school kids making eyes at each other from across the classroom during a geography lecture or something like that. Everyone around them takes the chase very seriously but these two are becoming more and more enthralled with one another as it builds until inevitably things take a turn and get a lot more serious for all involved.
The film begins very much as a comedy with the cat and mouse game seeming to make fun of the police and portraying them very much as bumbling keystone cops, complete with the camera work you'd expect to hammer that point home. The romance is instantly sappy and melodramatic and despite the abundance of absolutely fantastic art direction and cinematography, it all feels very sugar coated. What may not be apparent for the first chunk of the film is that Lee Myeong-se is setting us up for a fall. When the tragedy comes and the mood of the film changes, it's not necessarily a surprise but it is handled with such grace and style and with such unconventional narrative tactics that it certainly feels like one even if we knew where this was heading all along. While staying within the simplicity of the storyline Lee Myeong-se is able to bend genre and filmmaking conventions and create a movie that is wholly unique not because of its storyline or characters (who are in fact very much clichés) but because of how he tells us their tale.
Characters in this film move with such grace and such style and the colors are so over the top and completely gorgeous that at times its tempting to just turn off the volume and watch in order to soak everything in (in fact, you have the option to watch with movie without the dialogue if you want – more on that in the Extras section) - if the score weren't so engrossing, that is. The Duelist is one of those movies that so perfectly blends music with the images up there on the screen, or in this case the TV, that it transcends the lack of dialogue and manages to tell its story through emotionally gripping musical cues and through movement. As goofy as it sounds, parts of this film are almost like a ballet.
Don't be fooled by the packaging for this release or by the marketing aspect that the trailer opted to focus on - The Duelist is not a traditional period martial arts film with romantic overtones like Hero - it's definitely a romance first and foremost and although there are some absolutely fantastic action set pieces and impressive wuxia scenes here and there, they only really serve to set up and subsequently knock down the love story that is the central core of the movie.
When its all sad and done and the end credits role, The Duelist does have a few problems – the characters are pretty shallow, some of the comedy is pretty groan inducing, and the storyline is completely pedestrian. Anyone who falls for the marketing will definitely be let down as their expectations will have been completely mislead and the fact that the action scenes play out more like dance scenes might leave some scratching their heads. Despite all that, the nearly two hour running time moves by at a nice quick pace and while it is all very much an exercise in style over substance it is such a beautifully made movie that you can't help but be sucked in by the melodrama no matter how far you see it coming in advance. It isn't a film that keeps you on the edge of your seat and it isn't a film that will hit you with any surprises, instead it's a sickly sweet teenage love story about two ill fated lovers told with such excessively beautiful imagery that it's hard to resist. This is not a perfect film but those who don't mind the sappiness inherent in some of Korea's filmed cultural exports should enjoy soaking in the fantastic look and feel of the movie.
The anamorphic 2.35.1 transfer looks very, very nice on this DVD release. Blacks are solid, colors are very well defined and flesh tones look lifelike and natural. Compression artifacts and edge enhancement are almost non-existent and there isn't a whole lot to complain about. There's plenty of both foreground and background detail present in the image from start to finish and color reproduction is drop dead gorgeous. There's a tiny hint of aliasing present in a few scenes as well as some saw tooth artifacts in a couple of spots where the reds move quickly but other than that there aren't really any digital transfer issues worth noting aside from some very slight edge enhancement here and there. Print damage is pretty much non-existent and while there is some fine film grain in one or two spots, that's okay as it isn't ever once overpowering or distracting in the least. The Duelist looks damn good on this DVD.
Surround sound options are available in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a DTS 6.1 mix. The DTS mix is great – very active and properly balanced demonstrating distinct channel separation, crystal clear dialogue, and great use of the rear channels for sound effects and background music. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has slightly less LFE in it, but is also quite solid and the score sounds fantastic regardless of which option you choose. This is a very, very layered mix used in this film, and this DVD does a very good job of exposing everything that's hiding in the background with crystal clear audio. Optional subtitles are available in Korean and in English. Clarity is great both tracks, and the DTS mix sounds exceptionally good, particularly when the soundtrack kicks in or when the more action-oriented scenes take place.
The extras for this release are spread across the three discs in the set. Each and every one of the interviews and documentaries contained throughout this set are presented in anamorphic widescreen. Here's what you'll find and where you'll find it:
The first disc contains two commentary tracks and an alternate audio track that contains everything but the dialogue (in essence, it's the sound effects and the score only). The first commentary track is with director Lee Myeong-se and three of the actors from the film: Ha Ji-won, Kang Dong-wan, and Ahn Seong-gi. The second commentary track is with Lee Myeong-se again, this time joined by the film's composer, Joh Seo-woo and South Korean film critic Kang Han-seob. Unfortunately, neither one of the commentary tracks are subtitled in English which makes them completely impenetrable to those of us who aren't fluent in Korean but sampling the tracks proves that they're both very active with a lot of discussion contained in both – those who speak Korean would be in for a treat here, they're probably quite interesting. Watching the film without the dialogue and only the effects and the score with the English subtitles on is an interesting experience and it's worth trying this for a few of the key scenes just to kind of get an appreciation for how much detail is in the mix. It also gives you a chance to really appreciate the beauty of Joh Seo-woo's fantastic film score.
The biggest and best extra feature on the second disc comes in the form of a forty-five minute long making of documentary entitled Josen Love Story that is unfortunately not subtitled in English, nor are any of the other supplements on this disc. Thankfully for this featurette, it doesn't matter so much as the vast majority of what we get with this segment is random behind the scenes footage and effects footage because of that there isn't a lot of dialogue to translate in the first place. The director does show up and speak in a few spots here and there but other than that, this is pretty easy to follow even with the language barrier and it does do a pretty good job of giving us at least a rough idea of what it was like on the set of the film as it was in production. The soundtrack from the movie plays out over a lot of this material and we get a peek at how a few of the key scenes were created, which makes for interesting viewing.
Also on the second disc is a featurette entitled Beyond The Historical Investigation that takes a look at the visuals for the film by way of examining the costumes, the set design, the art direction and some of the props and weapons used in the film. There's a lot of dialogue and interview footage in here and without subs its tricky to say exactly what is discussed but we get to check out some of the design work that was created for the movie as well as how some of the costumes were designed. At over thirty-five minutes in length this appears to be fairly comprehensive and probably a pretty enjoyable supplement for those who speak the language.
Up next are three interview segments, the first is with a few of the cast members (Ha Ji-won, Kang Dong-won, and Ahn Sung-gi) and it runs for just shy of twelve-minutes, the second is with the editor of the film, Go Im-pyo, and it runs for just over fifteen-minutes and the third and final one is with composer Joh Seo-woo and it clocks in at a little over twelve-minutes in length. No English subtitles are supplied for these interviews.
A twelve and a half minute featurette on the digital effects and computer/CGI work is up next and even without being able to understand the dialogue this is still an interesting look at what went into creating the environment for the film. We see a lot of clips that show the movie with and without the optical effects applied to it in post production to give us a comparison to show how much the effects work was worked into the final version of the movie. What's surprising about this is just how much of the film was shot against a green screen – there are a few spots in the movie that you'd figure were shot on sets or actual locations but were in fact done with some pretty seamless computer work.
Director Lee Myeong-se again is joined by the film's composer, Joh Seo-woo, and South Korean film critic Kang Han-seob for a twenty-two and a half minute long video taped discussion of the film. The lack of subtitles makes this one tricky to get around. Interestingly enough, this entire discussion is shot in black and white.
Finishing off the second disc is a wealth of electronic press kit materials including a teaser trailer, a six and a half minute long promotional spot made up for the film to be shown at Cannes, the full length Korean theatrical trailer, a television commercial for the film and finally a music video for the main theme used in the movie.
The best supplement by far in the entire three disc set is the hour and twenty minute long Josen Noir – The Making Of The Duelist documentary that, thankfully does include optional English subtitles throughout. This is an excellent and informative documentary that uses some great clips of the cast and crew on set cut in with some interviews and some behind the scenes footage to give us a very comprehensive look at the making of the film. We see Lee Myeong-se behind the camera directing a few scenes, and we also get to hear about his working methods and the ways in which he brings his ideas to the screen (he was some unorthodox directing quirks that make him an interesting subject) and in fact, a lot of the focus of this piece is on Lee Myeong-se himself, rather than on the making of the movie. We get to see his strengths and his weaknesses all come into light in his interaction with a few of the performers and what really comes through is just how passionate about filmmaking he really is. We see him ponder the merits of mainstream acceptance after a screening of the film in Toronto, which gives us some insight into how he feels about his work which is quite an intimate little side to get to understand and as such, this documentary is, at times, as interesting as the feature itself.
Finishing off the third disc is another music video and eight minutes worth of footage from one of the film's Korean screenings entitled Duelist Poison in which some of the people who watched the film give their take on it – the lack of subtitles makes this one a little difficult to get around..
Also completely worth mentioning is the packaging for this release. All three discs are housed inside a clothbound case that looks like a book from the outside but that opens up to reveal some nice artwork and interesting design efforts. Also included inside the packaging is a very nice book, sadly all in Korean, that contains some notes on the film and what appears to be some biographical information for a few of the cast and crew members. The book contains some great images that look really nice on the thick, glossy paper stock that they've used to print it up on.
The Duelist is a completely gorgeous film that benefits from a solid storyline and some amazing visuals and art direction. Performances are strong throughout and the film is both interesting and entertaining in spite of the noted flaws. The three disc set from EnterOne DVD is a top notch effort all around and while it's regrettable that not all of the extras are subbed, the documentary that is happens to be an exceptionally interesting look at the making of the film. The DVD looks and sounds fantastic, and this one comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.