[K-FILM REVIEWS] 형사 Duelist (Part 2)
3 Disc Limited Edition
Release Date: 01/19/2006
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Region Code: Region 3
DVD Format: DVD-9 (Single Side, Dual Layer)
Audio: Korean DTS, Korean Dolby Digital 5.1, Soundtrack/Sound Effects Track (DD5.1), 2 Commentary Tracks (2.0 Each)
CONTINUED FROM PART 1
EXTRA FEATURES - Disc 2
조선 어느 사랑 이야기 (A Certain Love Story in the Joseon Dynasty)
An excellent Making Of covering just about every aspect of the film. In keeping with Lee Myung-Se's style, this is pretty much 'universal' as 90% is just behind the scenes or rehearsals, with a few comments by Lee, but mostly things which will be covered more in depth later. From the marketplace to the red light district, from the Minister's quarters to the final action scenes, it's all covered, supported by Jo Sung-Woo's soundtrack.
고증 너머... (Beyond Historical Evidence...)
A tremendous overview of all the major elements regarding art direction, costumes and make up. Shows how much care has been put in trying to show something fresh, and how much Lee's influence came across when choosing styles.
- Art Director Lee Hyung-Joo starts talking about the general concept of the film. One thing that jumps at the viewer instantly when watching a Lee Myung-Se film is the use of colour. Also, since this is not a traditional historical drama, and not even a fusion drama, they really didn't focus on accurate historical evidence. It's not the kind of reality Lee wanted. What they tried to establish was a certain familiar feeling, yet still with some freshness. It could have been the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, or maybe even the end, but nothing was set in stone. You were just thrown 'sometime in the Joseon Dynasty', and everything began from there. Art directors always have a certain sets of images in mind when they think of specific historical settings, but the simple fact this was neither a traditional nor a fusion drama forced them to reconsider, to think again about those images. It wasn't about any culturally-specific element, but instead about trying to find something universal, something everyone could consider beautiful, regardless of how much it was connected culturally to any particular historical time frame. So, in a way, it might have been hard, but it was really a great challenge for them, and something which brought back memories of their days in college, when they were really trying to think about art itself, not merely working as art directors in a film. And all those struggles can only make them grow in their profession. Even if it might be referring to something happening 500 years ago, people are always the same. Society might change, popular trends might transform, and of course technological and scientific evolution can make a world of difference. But, deep inside, people are always the same: they go out for a drink and they like to 'entertain' themselves. So, while there were really no accurate data they could research, there's a big possibility the tavern and red light district they used in the film could have existed, even in the Joseon Dynasty. They kept approaching that element of the film in terms of diversity, and trying to find different ways of portraying that, even only changing the tonality of the colours. In conclusion, when people make period films, they end up researching similar material. But even if you represent that era perfectly down to the smallest details, it's not going to make a difference for the vast majority of the viewers. So that's why just giving a feeling, an image that we're dealing with sometime in Korea's past, trying to leave the crucial culturally-specific elements there, but have fun with the rest, is enough to convey the time period.
- Jung Kyung-Hee, responsible for the (wonderful) costumes, says that because of the 백의민족 (white clad folk) syndrome, people always tend to associate certain costumes to the Joseon Dynasty, or to Historical Dramas in particular. But that's something she always disliked, and wanted to distance the film from. She respected the customs and artistic trademarks of the culture, but tried to show a sense of difference within those boundaries. Lee never really looked if something was right or wrong historically speaking, he wanted something which fit with the film's overall context, both stylistically and visually. The costumes in the film might feel light and even a little childish, but she tried to show variety in that anyway. In designing the clothes of the Yangban and 기생 (female entertainers), they tried to use a variety of bright colours, yet something Jung never liked in Hanbok is the use of white in the undergarments, which ends up focusing too much on the face (making it look bigger). So, while yangban clothes still had it, she designed more natural clothes for commoners and people like Nam-Soon.
- Make Up artist Hwang Hyun-Gyu comments that, because of the portrayal of historical figures on TV has sort of created this mentality about how things looked in the past, many films and Historical Dramas on TV nowadays simply follow that formula, without worrying about diversity. Yangban in the Joseon Dynasty dressed like this, Commoners in the Unified Shilla period like that, hair were like this and that, and so on. But if you actually look at photos and material from the era, there was a wild diversity of styles, I wouldn't call it a sense of fashion the likes of which you find today, but not everyone dressed the same, not everyone kept their hair the same way -- in this sense, the different haircuts displayed by Chae Si-Ra in the recent Historical Drama 해신 (Emperor of the Sea) is a good example of what Hwang is talking about -- so that was their concept too. Respecting culturally-specific trends to a degree, but then also showing a kind of diversity and variety to spice up things, and bring something fresh to the table. As for Ha Ji-Won's hairstyle, more than the usual Damo-like image, she wanted someone a little more free-spirited, who cut her own hair. Kang had a much more mysterious style, so he needed a kind of flow even in the haircut, and for Ahn Sung-Gi they toned down the colour of his hair, to reach a brownish tint.
슬픈눈, 남순, 그리고 (Sad Eyes, Nam-Soon, And...)
A nice group of interviews with the main cast. Ha Ji-Won begins talking about her feelings when they started shooting. She felt like she was debuting all over again, and it was really hard at first. She always tries to give her best, but she felt a lot of confusion while adjusting to Lee's style. It was really hard and sometimes even burdensome, but while shooting the film, she felt like she was improving as an actress. She founds things about herself she never knew in the past, and working next to the rest of the cast, she learned a lot. Kang Dong-Won describes his character, and how Lee approached it in the script and after on the set. He comments that this film is unlike most other action films, as they also had to take dance lessons, and the action and dance team were both on the set working with them all the time. Ha says that she started the action training really fast, and because Lee never really told her the kind of action he wanted, she had to train in several different styles, things she never did before: judo, boxing, mixed martial arts, and more. Yet, Lee often changed things on the set, which often made her feel bad inside, although she kept working hard. Ahn Sung-Gi notes that the best thing about Lee Myung-Se might also be his biggest weakness in some people's eyes: that he's unique, someone you can rarely find not only in Korea, but also all over the world. But he's adjusting to and liking working with him more and more, as he's more open minded that he might seem, and always creates a fun atmosphere while working together. Ha closes saying she has a lot of confidence about the film, not necessarily about her role or her acting, but the film itself as a whole.
An excellent featurette about editing in the film. Editor Go Im-Pyo talks about the first time he worked with Lee, on 나의 사랑, 나의 신부 (My Love, My Bride), even though he knew him before. Back then, just like now, his films had that playfulness of animation films, even if at first they might look childish. When nobody in Chungmuro was using CG and similar techniques, he would (ever since 'My Love, My Bride'), so he always felt there was something special about the way he worked. Go thinks in this film his editing had even more impact, especially in the transitions, speed, motion and style. Working with Lee has never really been hard for him (maybe because he doesn't have to go on location?), as Lee is someone who rarely shoots throwaway cuts. He almost edits things inside his head before shooting, so he only films what he needs. The concept Lee wanted to emphasize in this film was that of the 10 cuts, meaning, even if you had several hundred cuts in the film, it had to feel like you only had 10. He took this concept after watching a film in the US, which felt like a single, continuous cut (Russian Ark?). That's why techniques like the Wipe Effect are used, and this extends even more the fluidity and pacing of the film, all in the name of movement. When thinking about his work with him, Go remembers in particular the 40 steps scene in 'Nowhere To Hide', and the first confrontation between Nam-Soon and Sad Eyes. Many people think it was one cut, but it's actually many cuts tied together by CG seamlessly. Finally, he elaborates on the idea of good editing. It's certainly a crucial part of filmmaking, but people might have different ideas of what's good editing. It might be good editing when you're left wondering how they cut scenes together, if they were made of 2 or 3 cuts, or similar things. But it's also about emphasizing and helping the tone of the film, the dialogue, music and things like that. Go hopes in the future Lee will try to make films everyone can enjoy, getting a little closer to people's idea of enjoyment (not his own).
또 하나의 내러티브 (Another Kind of Narrative
A very nice clip about Jo Sung-Woo's work in the film. Working with Lee, he keeps using the feelings the director communicates him, and translates that musically. As for 'Duelist', its soundtrack has nothing particularly innovative or special musically, as even though some of its parts have genre-specific elements, it doesn't really follow any rule. It's not music for a period film, and since it's not a 'normal' action film, the music highlighting the action scenes is not what you'd find in your average action film. It's a mix of many things: classic, rock, hip hop, waltz, tango... it gives a Festival-like feeling. Jo worked with about 30 directors in his career so far, but Lee has always been the most difficult to work with. He certainly respects his achievements as a filmmaker, but if you want to work with him without suffering, you have to abandon any ambition as an artist. This is not to say Jo only had to follow orders, but Lee is a non-collaborator, he uses the music director as someone who can translate into music the kind of feelings he wants in the film. And to do that, Jo has to give his input on what could represent those feelings, interpret them in the best possible way. But since films are a directors' artform, it's something you just have to acknowledge. He describes Lee as a sort of 'philosopher', someone who constantly thinks about the meaning, the essence of film. Many people make films, but those who have that kind of thought process aren't many. Talking about specific pieces, for the first confrontation between Sad Eyes and Nam-Soon, the basis was modern tango. They used that concept as this wasn't only a fight, but also a kind of ballet. The final set piece with the detectives breaking down on Minister Byung-Pan had a requiem-like feeling, and the final action scene was more like an Hollywood film. So many genres combining together. Describing the use of music in Lee's films, Jo thinks they become a substitute for storytelling and character development, as his films never place too much attention on those aspects. So the film becomes like an artwork. Quite interesting.
CG & DI
As always, not my favorite kind of feature, but I'm sure it will interest videophiles. The clip starts showing the usual CG before/after clips, but it's much more active than a simple split screen -- the screen divides into four sections all of a sudden, size of the screens increase or decrease depending on the focus, and the transition between original source, CG processing and final result is really smooth. High-end Korean films continue to surprise about their use of CG, especially matte painting. There's scenes you'd never guess were the result of intensive CG work, like most of the alley fights (even the darkness and shadow was added!). A group of CG artists then talk about the various aspects of their work in the film, including Digital Intermediate, Color Correction, Mastering, and the use of the famous 4K Camera. Kind of bored me, and you'd think it wouldn't since Lee's films always focus on the visuals more than any other Korean director, but after all the real focus is movement and flow in the final film, not knowing what a camera does. Anyhow, pretty nice if you're an expert or videophile, otherwise a little dry.
A pretty long, superb conversation between Director Lee, Music Director Jo Sung-Woo and Film Critic Kang Han-Seop, who sort of 'discovered' Lee Myung-Se (in the sense he was the first who really praised him and understood he was a visionary director, someone with a different style) in the 80s. The two became good friends, and as Kang will admit in the documentary on Disc 3, he even worked as his unofficial 'agent' for a while. This is shot in B&W (nice touch, a sort of Hong Sang-Soo style 'focus on the dialogue' technique). Here's some of what they talked about:
- They first met around the late 80s, Kang thinks at the press screening of Lee's debut 개그맨 (Gagman). Kang remembers that after praising his films, Lee introduced himself as the first director of 통합영화 (Integrated Films, as in films as a whole, not a collection of separate elements - dialogue, action, etc.). Lee talks about his relationship with critics, and how they often criticized his works. He thinks a good critic is like a poet, in a way. Kang talks about his relationship with Lee vis-a-vis his career as a critic, and the conflicts of interest which sometimes emerged when he was commenting about his film (both because he was a friend of the director, and sometimes even worked 'unofficially' in the films), with Lee Choon-Yeon going as far as telling him not to write anything about Lee's 1996 film 지독한 사랑 (Their Last Love Affair). But Lee feels thankful someone like Kang was there, praising his debut film and giving him support. When he realized there were people who truly loved his films, that empowered him, and gave him the confidence to work harder and try to constantly better himself. Kang thinks Lee's films were always a nice experience for him, because they made him think about film language in itself, its essence. Seeing the kind of affection people like the 형사중독 (Addicted To Duelist) fanclub had, Lee wished critics could carry that sense of understanding and affection too.
- He thinks the role of the critic is very important, but sometimes people tend to use their position in a way which can hurt people's feelings. So if there was anything he'd like from them, it'd be that kind of affection, no matter if the critique was positive or negative. This is important, as it seems increasingly true in professional film criticism today, where few people really give constructive criticism. It's much easier to just shut the door, and say the film sucked, the director is this and that. When Kang and Lee met for the first time, Korea was still transitioning from an authoritarian regime to what would eventually become a democracy, so most films were focusing on trying to show the changing values of society. Social realism films like the works of Park Gwang-Soo, whose 칠수와 만수 (Chilsoo & Mansoo) debuted in 88 just like 'Gagman', were a major influence on filmmakers and even critics. So when Lee came into the scene, ignoring all those elements and turning the page, people either ignored him, or weren't really open to his kind of filmmaking.
- Jo Sung-Woo joins the conversation, reminiscing about the times when they first met, and what working with him meant to him, always looking for new ideas and input. Kang jokes that even though Critics voted his film the best of the year, he's still considered more of a great technician than a good writer. They also talk about DV films and the new shooting techniques in Chungmuro: Lee doesn't really like handheld, so until he finds anything he likes about working with the DV format, he doesn't think he'll use it much. Kang comments that even though he can find in Lee's films an energy that only his works can show, he thinks his films, especially his recent ones, haven't changed enough. Lee certainly changed, society changed, even film did so, but his films seem to say more or less the same thing. Lee responds that shooting films for him is like looking for one's identity, a constant struggle and ambition to seek the truth, and he continues to pursue the essence of filmmaking through his works, although the motives might seem the same.
- Lee closes talking about his working relationship with Jo. He doesn't really know music (as in reading notes, writing music), but he thinks he's got a certain feeling about it, something he can express through talking about it. Jo says the best thing about working with Lee is not the music itself, but sitting down for a few drinks after the film is complete, reminiscing about the memories they made. When 'Nowhere To Hide' became so successful, he really felt things were changing. There wasn't much of a story, but people still liked it, so he thought Korean viewers' taste in films was changing. But in 'Duelist' it didn't work as he expected, so he hopes to do well next time.
티저 (Teaser Trailer)
And the chills started. I still remember watching this, and feeling only one thing: why did it take so long to see another Lee Myung-Se? Basically this uses the final 'confrontation' in the snow, as the film is a giant McGuffin to get there, so in a way you could feel it might be a spoiler, or a huge incentive to watch the film. Supremely stylish, and the music used in this teaser -- Haendel's 'Sarabande de la Suite de Clavecin n° 7', which should be familiar to those who watch many trailers for Korean films -- fits perfectly. If anything, by now the film was still in the dark (literally) about its' genre', although most people already knew what it was about, or at least they thought so. Then Master Lee went his way...
깐느 프로모 (Cannes Promo)
- fade in, the Korea Pictures booth at the 2005 Cannes Film Market. Two guys (probably company execs looking for a distrib deal, or maybe critics) walk in, and start watching the promo for Lee Myung-Se's upcoming film 형사 (Duelist):
(cue deep voice): "In an ancient land... dominated by corrupt nobles.... a woman, fighting against her deepest instincts"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "Man, this looks interesting, where is it from?"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 2: "Uhh... China or Korea, I guess. Could be anything. There's not even soundbites here, the hell I know. Oh wait... That's Ha Ji-Won, so it's Korea after all."
deep voice: "a mysterious assassin... a legendary fighter struggling to control his emotions"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "Wahhhh... look at that stuff man, it's a Wuxia!"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 2: "Yeah... this is like those Zhang Yimou flicks then."
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "And Crouching Tiger, dude. Totally."
deep voice: "from the director of Nowhere To Hide... prepare yourself for a totally new experience"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "Nowhere To Hide? What's that, have you seen it?"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 2: "Yeah... it was like Tarantino on acid. Pretty stylish. So the guy went from action to Wuxia, uhh."
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "What was that film like, John Woo with Kimchi?"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 2: "Nahhh... more like, Beverly Hills Cop meets Wong Kar-Wai. Quite funny actually. That Park guy is great."
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "But there's no comedy at all in this clip. I guess he changed?"
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 2: "Yeah, maybe it's the long absence. I mean, he's an action guy, look at Nowhere To Hide! Maybe comedy was just incidental."
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "So I can go sure with this, I don't like comedy in Wuxia films... jeez, look at that swordfight. That's so cool."
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 2: "Yeah... sounds like quite the solid Wuxia. Sold."
Guy at the Korea Pictures Booth 1: "Yeah, me too man. Can't wait to see it."
- as the two men leave, a marketing guy from Korea Pictures looks from afar, laughing like a baddie from a 50s flick: "딱 걸렸어....프하하하하하 (I got ya... hahahahaahah)"
- fade out. The end.
예고편 (Theatrical Trailer
Although nobody had the balls to throw some of the comedy in there (which I think works marvelously), this is miles better than the previous 'exotica bait', where every shot seemed to be reminding of every Wuxia film made in the last 5 years (oooh... soldiers running in the night, big palace, swordfight). It focuses a lot more on the melodrama than the action, adding little things like 사랑하지마 (Don't Fall in Love), 바라보지마 (Don't Look at Him). Really powerful, great music. This is a little closer to the actual film, but most people not familiar with Lee were mislead into thinking it would be another traditional Wuxia, thanks to trailers like this. Taken out of context, great fun. But then it creates expectations, and I'm sure a big part of people's disappointment with the film comes from misunderstanding the film's approach and sensibilities. And it's not completely their fault.
뮤직비디오 (Music Video)
[4:11 - Love Song, Park Gi-Young]
Composed by Jo Sung-Woo, this is the same main theme Ha Ji-Won and Kang Dong-Won sing at the end, only rocker Park Gi-Young sings it. Seems like that duet is in the film only, as the OST has Park Gi-Young and Lee Seung-Yeol. Lovely Music Video, again pushing the melodrama, with even less action. Less likely to create misinterpretations, I wish the Trailers were like this. Quite good.
Harmless. Mostly focuses on the action, but not too bad.
EXTRA FEATURES - Disc 3
조선 느와르: 이명세 만들기 (Chosun Noir: Lee Myung-Se Makes Duelist)
English Subtitles ON/OFF, Chapter Selection [73:19]
Directed by 소재영 (So Jae-Young)
Ahn Sung-Gi: "그럼 관객이 병판이 아니라 관객 보는 걸로 알지 (If I do that, then the viewers aren't Byung-Pan, they'll just think I'm staring at them)."
Lee Myung-Se: "관객을 보자고. 관객이 병판이야. 대결할 때 관객과 대결하는 거야. (That's what I want you to do, look at the viewers. The audience is Byung-Pan, when you're fighting with him, you're going to fight with the viewers)."
- from 'Chosun Noir: Lee Myung-Se Makes Duelist'
Great artist are often lonely, complicated people. They follow their own logic, which governs their world; have their special rhythm, a way of dealing with people and issues many people cannot understand. Although examples of really nice guys becoming good or even great directors do exist, the opposite is true more often than not: most of the greatest directors of all time were notoriously hard to work with. Be it their ego, or the fact the film comes before everything else for them; be it the sense that film can only exist if it follows the director's logic, or that feeling of omnipotence that position might give you. Lee Myung-Se is no different: he's been working in the industry for more than 20 years now, yet there's still many people who can't deal with his working style. Call him 불친절한 명세씨 (Unkind Myung-Se), if you wish. At one point in So Jae-Young's illuminating documentary 조선 느와르 (Chosun Noir), Lee reflects on what it means to be a director in Chungmuro: everyone else (actors, producers, staff) will keep working as if nothing happened, but if a director makes a big mistake, he's done. Game over. Would that explain his working style? Maybe... or maybe not.
As a longtime devoted fan of Lee's work, the most striking image from this documentary was seeing Lee behind the camera, looking at the monitor while Ahn Sung-Gi and the other actors were squaring off in an action scene. He was making noises, happy like a kid playing with action figures, alone inside his favourite world. It was almost touching seeing him react that way. Most people would be worried about lighting, angles, exposure, if the acting tone was right. But he didn't, no. He was following the action with sounds like 'swaahhh.... taaak.... swwooosh'. I felt like I was reading the 'noises' in a manhwa, for the first time. Even people who've been working with him say he's changed, that now it's even more difficult to understand what he really wants, as he often directs people through noise. Poor Kang Dong-Won looks at him with a dumb smile as he shows him how to move: "Do it like that.... swaaaah... in the air, then you turn... dadaaak'. But this change might just be Lee coming to terms with audience expectations. For the first decade of his directing career, Lee pretty much followed his own path, not moved by audience or critical reaction. But with his 1999 film 인정사정 볼것 없다 (Nowhere To Hide), Lee found he could also be a commercially successful director, if he wanted.
Of course 나의 사랑, 나의 신부 (My Love, My Bride) was also successful, but that success is relative to the situation Chungmuro was facing in the early 90s, when selling 2-300,000 tickets was considered a hit. Every other film Lee made before and after flopped, except 'Nowhere To Hide'. Things like that can drive people off balance: what did he finally do 'right' to convince people to spend money on his film? Did he become mainstream? Why? How? What is mainstream? All that chaos and confusion continued floating in Lee's mind. Although this is just a simple speculation on my part, I think the biggest reason why Lee left Korea at the apex of his popularity was to come to terms with this new situation. He was used to almost embarrassing flops, getting the same old criticism (there's no drama, too much style and no substance), and then he miraculously succeeds. The reasons why the film was a hit might be as simple as choosing the right cast at the right time (top star Park Joong-Hoon, heartthrob Jang Dong-Gun, veteran Ahn Sung-Gi, and idol Choi Ji-Woo), or who knows why. But it made him think, about his career, and about film itself. Lee, who jokingly calls himself 'the first 21st Century Film Director,' has never been someone you could easily work with.
Jo Sung-Woo, one of Lee's longtime collaborators, sums up quickly what working with him means: "if I bring up an idea, he might look at me with skepticism. Then he comes back after a while, says the same exact thing as he thought about it first, and then it's difficult to stop him. He's not a collaborative person, and if you don't seem to agree with him, then he gets angry." Not exactly a very mature way of dealing with professionals, especially when the time and efforts of more than a hundred people lie on your mood swings. But Lee always worked like that, he always pushes everyone to the limit, to the point where you either give everything you have inside, or just give up. Many producer-driven films use new directors because they're easy to work with: they come to work, treat everyone well, do their job (even working hard, mind you), and go home. That's a wrap, end of story. But Lee is not afraid. He argues with Ahn Sung-Gi, someone who started acting when Lee didn't even have his '100 days' ceremony after birth, like a general talking with his underling. 'Look at the camera', and Ahn, who has been working with Lee since the early 80s, just looks down and eats his 'orders.' Why would anyone have to endure all that humiliation, and why would anyone continue working with someone like Lee, project after project, without moving a finger? Because Ahn, other than being one of the best actors in Korea, is also a very intelligent performer, someone who realizes why Lee works like that, and how much his way of dealing with actors can help them grow.
In a recent interview, Ha Ji-Won commented she never really understood what acting really was, until she worked with Lee. She always worked hard, gave it all to make every project live up to the director's expectations. But for the first time Ha had to challenge her own view of what her profession meant. She trained for months in certain martial arts styles, then Lee comes on the set and asks something completely different -- then why train at all? So that her body gets used to the rhythm and movement buried within action and martial arts. It didn't really matter which technique she used while training, it was all about learning the 'flow' of the action she was performing. Song Young-Chang, another regular of Lee's films, wears a priceless look on his face, as Lee tells Ahn to basically hit Song straight in the face, for one of the final scenes ('It won't hurt if you hit him like this, see?'). Park Joong-Hoon, who worked twice with him before and has always been very close to Lee, someone who has pretty much seen them all in the industry, talks of his frustration and bad first impression of him while working on films like 'Nowhere To Hide'. Even staff members are involved: DP Hwang Gi-Seok, not exactly a newcomer in the game, is almost forced to pseudo-sarcastic comments ('let's just burn the storyboards'), as Lee tries to explain the 'wipe effect' he wanted to use in the film (the one you see at the beginning with Kim Bo-Yeon, when as she turns her head, the scene follows her like a dissolve). You'd think Lee was a monster, just looking at the way he acts on screen, at the way he never lets people butt in with their opinions, and always ends up forcing his will upon others.
But thankfully this documentary shows the other side of his working style. By looking at the small intimate moments he shares with the actors while rehearsing, playfully displaying his showmanship on the set, looking more like an entertainer than a director. Lee's approach to directing reminds of a sort of father figure, someone who pushes you to the limit, who asks you to give everything you have, who often scolds you, humiliates you, makes you feel like a slave (as an helpless supporting actor comments: "We feel like extras, even though we're not. There's no storyboards, no script, no directions... he just shows up and tells you to do something). But then he's the first to praise you, the first to make you feel good about your work, the first to show the kind of warmth (however brief it might be) other directors would never show. And this is something which might appeal to you more than what the film the documentary 'covers', as understanding the man is essential, if you ever want to understand the films he makes.
Screened at the recent ResFest 2005, 'Joseon Noir' was directed by So Jae-Young, director of ResFest and a Professor of Film/Theater at the Seoul Institute of Arts. It's more a documentary about the man behind the film, more than the film itself. So says that the title refers to the fact he shows the dark side of the director, unlike other self-congratulatory documentaries, which always show only the happy moments, never the angry debates, the little fights people inevitably can have when dozens of opinions clash one with the other. Even friends of director Lee, like film critic Kang Han-Seop, criticize him, but it never feels like petty remarks. And that's why 'Joseon Noir' is so good: it shows Lee's working style, it will help you understand 'Duelist', and even Lee Myung-Se a little more. It gives a balanced view of the man, showing his possible weaknesses when dealing with people, and his charms. It also shows Lee at the last Toronto International Film Festival, where he reflects about the people's reaction to 'Duelist' (at home and abroad), and the meaning of being mainstream.
Entirely subtitled in English (few typos, some missed lines, some awkward translation, but generally good), 'Joseon Noir' is essential viewing if you're even remotely interested in Korean Cinema, as it will allow you to understand how one of the most important directors of the last few decades operates, without necessarily having to do that through repeated viewings of all his older films. Even though your mileage might vary, I found it touching, illuminating, funny, consistently engaging and tremendously informative. A gem which is worth the price of this release alone.
형사중독 (Addicted To 'Duelist')
다모 (Damo) had the 폐인 (The 'Crippled by Damo'), so the film version is the 'addicted by Duelist'. When it was released in theaters, the film divided audiences wildly, with some loving it so much they watched it 4-5 times, some walking out of the theater after 20 Minutes. This is obviously a featurette about the former category. A group of netizens first got together at several net cafes and message boards to talk about the film, then went a step further, and actually organized another screening of the film. A few of the members of this fan club are interviewed about their feelings, mostly talking about how this is a film whose visuals should be appreciated over the story, and many keep focusing on the beauty of the film (and there's some Kang Dong-Won fans too, obviously). Lee joins the screening, and talks a little after the film's conclusion. He considers all the people who helped the film come back to theaters (even if for a limited run) like his family, and also felt the same bond with the actors. Nice little featurette.
뮤직비디오 (Music Video)
['Love Song', Ha Ji-Won & Kang Dong-Won, 2:54]
Can't really say I liked this one, as it features the least interesting song of the entire soundtrack. Of course it has a certain meaning when Ha and Kang are singing it at the end of the film, and on those terms, it makes more sense they'd use them. The song in the OST is actually sung by Park Gi-Young (a talented female rocker) and Lee Seung-Yeol (former You&Me Blue member, who worked with Park Chan-Wook and on the OST of 'Wonderful Days'), which makes it a little more exciting. If anything, I'm glad this music video doesn't make the film look like another Wuxia: there's very little action, and if the major International marketing campaign focused on this sort of 'Romeo & Juliet in the Joseon Dynasty' vibe, perhaps there'd be less people expecting another Zhang Yimou flick. Uses some footage from the film, stills, and pretty muted compared to the film. Well done, but there's so many more interesting pieces (the instrumental main theme with french horns overpowering the piece... still gives me chills) from the soundtrack (the 'tango action' scene for example), this sort of loses its impact.
PACKAGING AND OTHER ITEMS
Booklet 'Never Ending Duelist'
- Very glossy and stylish, well produced and with stunning stills from the film. The first 20 or so pages are from the film itself, with portions of dialogue and similar things. The final dozen pages are about the film, with a few comments from the crew, profiles and more photos. Quality stuff.
- Truly stunning, one of the best looking sets released since DVDs took off in Korea in 99. It's the usual digipack inside a huge, sturdy cover. Here's a deeper look at the set:
Package Art - Front
Package Art - Back
Package Art - Side
Package Art - Open Case 1
Package Art - Open Case 2
Digipack - Open Case
Booklet - Front
Booklet - Inside 1
Lee Myung-Se's 'Duelist' is many things: it's an incredibly good looking film, it's exciting in ways most other films can't ever dream of, it's amazingly creative and consistently engaging, with the kind of vitality and playfulness of early silent films; it's quite universal, once you understand what it's trying to do, and shows those 6 years waiting and resting didn't rob Lee of his wicked talent. But it's not certainly easy to approach (or accept), because of a variety of issues, including misleading marketing, ill-informed expectations (which is kind of inevitable, as only one of Lee's films really traveled extensively outside Korea, and even that wasn't enough to explain his style), and genre-based preconceptions. If you expect a traditional Wuxia film, you'll damn the day you ever bought this DVD. If genre for you means sticking to one tone and never leaving that gear, then you're going to be annoyed to no end; if you think of films as storytelling first, everything else coming after, then you're going to find very little here which will appeal to you. This is not a Wuxia, not a melodrama, not a Historical Drama, not even a weird clash of genres: it's a Lee Myung-Se film, and therein lie all its charms (for people like me) and possible shortcomings (for those who don't like his films). I certainly am not pretentious enough to say Lee's way of dealing with the essence of filmmaking is the only, the best way to go. But I adore his films, for trying to reawaken the instincts of the viewers, for constantly feeding them with power, through movement, sound and film language. Hell, one of my favorite directors is Jang Jin, who in the late 90s admitted in an interview with Screen he could live happily without seeing a Lee Myung-Se ever again, the complete antithesis of Lee's philosophy about film. Yet they both share something in common, like Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook: they make pure cinema, not attached to the tropes of genre cinema like a huge chain tied to the floor, willing to explore new ways to say something with this medium.
2005 was a tremendous year for Korean Cinema, with many great films and lots of new talented faces coming into the scene. But I think the most important statement of the year is represented by this film. In this era when producers and actors fight each other for money, governments fight each other for screen quotas (or should I say bend over and let it come?), and exhibitors and distributors engage in petty fights over a few screens, there's still people like Lee who think about what started it all: film. Its language, its form, style, and ways to communicate with the viewer. 'Duelist' is not a perfect film, but it's the most 'film' like experience of the year. It's another 'Gagman' to me, another work looking into the future, when maybe people will finally love films for what they are, and stop worrying about the genre. From 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) to 웰컴 투 동막골 (Welcome To Donmakgol), the best films of the year dropped all this division and labeling and asked themselves the most predictable, cliched and trite question, yet the most important: how can I communicate with the audience, in a way which will make them happy? That 'Duelist' communicated so well with me personally is not necessarily a sign that things will be the same for you. But through this review, and through the fantastic extra features which make up one of the best Korean DVD releases of all time, I tried to open a little door into the world of Lee Myung-Se. Now whether you want to enter it or not, or whether the experience will mean something to you is completely off my hands. But this film deserves that little door, because if it means even only one person will discover one of their 'first loves' like I did many years ago with 'Bitter & Sweet', then I'll have done my job. Nam-Soon and Sad Eyes might be the duelists of the film, but at the end of the day, the most important duel will be that between Lee Myung-Se's cinematic world and that of the viewers. Now I need to re-open that door, one more time...
EXTRA FEATURES: 10
VALUE FOR MONEY: 10
OVERALL (Film Rating Counted Twice): 9.36
사랑니 (Blossom Again), 2005 Jung Ji-Woo + 해피엔드 (Happy End), 1999 Jung Ji-Woo
Korean DVD Roundup - Episode 2 (November 2005~January 2006)
Korean DVD Flashback - Episode 1 (June 2005~April 2005)