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“A triumph of style over content”

DuelistposterNamsoon (Ha) is a hard as nails detective in medieval Korea. While working undercover at a market on a counterfeiting case, she encounters a masked man (Kang), and battles him before he vanishes, though not before she manages to cut away a fragment of his mask revealing his ‘Sad Eyes’ – the name by which he is known for the rest of the film. What is his tie to the forged money? And why has be been seen going into the house of a powerful government Minister Song (Song)? Namsoon and her mentor, Ahn (Ahn) investigate, though the closer they get to the truth, the more perilous things become, not least because she begins to fall for Sad Eyes, especially after infiltrating Song’s mansion as a courtesan – a task for which she is singularly unsuited. After a public incident, while Ahn has to fire Namsoon from the police force, this is merely a ruse, allowing her to go after the final piece of evidence they need to raid Song’s mansion and bring down his operation.

Rarely have I seen a more beautifully-shot film. Truly, this picture is as pretty as a… er, picture. The cinematography is top-notch, offering a sumptuous feast of visuals that mixes styles and techniques to great effect, and freeing the movie from bothering with banal chores like dialogue for extended periods. Unfortunately, neither the story nor the characters are a match for the look and feel, leaving the viewer largely to admire the film, rather than being engaged by or liking it. As I recall, the director’s previous film, Nowhere to Hide, had much the same issue, pitting two (male, there) adversaries against each other, in a rain-drenched landscape that was emotionally distant – but, boy, did it look good. Here, the action is extremely stylized, resembling a modern dance routine more than a fight in some cases, or even, as one character puts it, “It was like they were making love under the moonlight.” I also sense there are creative anachronisms at work: did they even have cops, never mind lady ones, at this time? However, the biggest weakness is likely the sudden way Namsoon falls for Sad Eyes; she doesn’t seem at all like the kind of person who would do that, and since this supposed relationship is at the film’s emotional heart, it’s a flaw that may explain why this feels so uninvolving.

Under other circumstances, this could well be a fatal flaw, yet there’s still enough for your enjoyment in the eye candy department to make this worth watching, even at a fairly long 111 minutes. One senses that Lee is much more interested in the technical aspects of cinema, rather than the emotional one of connecting with the audience. I can appreciate that side, certainly, yet for a film to be truly successful, there needs to be some yin to go along with the yang, or what results will seems frustratingly incomplete.

Dir: Lee Myung-se
Star: Ha Ji-won, Kang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Song Young-chang

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