“The whole world is filled with fakes”, complains Detective Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) in the middle of Lee Myung-se’s Duelist.
Ahn is expressly referring to the counterfeit money and pretend magistrates that he and his young female partner Detective Namsoon (Ha Ji-won) are investigating – but he may as well be talking about their own liking for undercover disguises in pursuit of their case, or the sophisticated gambits and political duplicities of their chief suspect Minister of Defense Song Pil-joon (Song Young-chang), or the predilection for masks and imposture enjoyed by Song’s lethal henchman Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won). Here, when it comes to their identity, everyone seems to be faking it.
Ahn’s words might even be thought to encompass the genre of Lee’s filmic world. Certainly it has all the stock scenes and furnishings of your standard buddy cop flick. There is the unidentified killer on the loose; the evolving identikit picture; the suspect subjected to a good-cop bad-cop routine during interrogation; the tailing sequences and cat-and-mouse chases; the briefing that takes place around a map showing all the crime scenes marked in red; the police chief who chews out his officers, demanding that they hand in their badges and return to street patrol duty; the undercover detective who gets too close to the criminal; and lots of lines like “Pull yourself together, you’re a cop, a damn cop!” and “Freeze! I said freeze!”. Even the film’s original Korean title, Hyeongsa, means ‘detective’. Yet all these genre markings themselves seem but a disguise for something else – for unlike most cop flicks, The Duelist is set in a Korea of centuries ago, and seems to be at least as much a quirkily combative love story between Namsoon and Sad Eyes, or a kaleidoscopic reverie on the shifting seasons, as a piece of period police procedural.
Of course, the whole film is structured, as its English title suggests, around a series of stylised duels, making Duelist seem equally to belong to the wuxia genre of noble swordplay made familiar to Western audiences by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Dragons. Here too, though, appearances can be deceptive. Where the adjective ‘balletic’ has become something of a journalistic clich in describing wire-fu fighting, in Duelist the term risks becoming literalised, as a bladed bout between Namsoon and Sad Eyes slides into an actual dance (choreographed to a tango soundtrack) – and in their final confrontation, as one witness points out, it is not clear whether they are fighting, waltzing or ‘making love’. Similarly a chaotic marketplace chase sequence near the film’s beginning merges, with little concern for chronology or geography, into a game of American gridiron (with a sack of counterfeit coins as the ball), while another chase is sped up in the style of a Benny Hill comedy. And with her gorilla-like gait, gurning facial expressions and coarse conduct, Namsoon makes for a most unusual, albeit compelling, on-screen heroine, while, on the other hand, her antagonist/lover Sad Eyes plays wan epicene to her uncouth virago.
By the time it is all over, the film’s violent clash of different classes, seasons, colours, styles and genres (action, mystery, comedy, tragedy, romance, thriller, folktale, swords-and-sandals, ghost story), cut together at a furious pace and packaged with a beautiful aesthetic, suggests that it is Lee who has all along been duelling with us, exploiting our knowledge of conventional cinema to confound us into underestimating his powers.
No doubt there will be those who see Duelist as a sort of counterfeit cinema: all spectacular style with nothing of substance underneath. Yet it is perhaps more apt to regard the film as being like the coins that drive its plot: a fake so exquisitely rendered that it has acquired a value all of its own, even as it exposes the essential emptiness of what it imitates. In any case, it is undeniably a novel piece of art, defying easy categorisation and hailing the end of cinema – at least as we know it. Once again, South Korea proves home to some of the most exciting filmmaking in the world – just don’t expect a Hollywood remake of this engagingly chimerical oddity anytime soon.