I remember a Christmas day in New Zealand. The weather was perfect, the kind you wanted to bottle up and save for dreary days and moods. Unlike windy days in Wellington, the breeze was gentle that day and the air so crisp I wanted to eat it.
Alone and carefree, I walked up the lane and came to a house that was under construction. Seeing no one around, I stepped recklessly inside. At the end of the hall a large window, paneless, beckoned. I walked close and there, beyond the window, was the whole expanse of sky, sea and hills, as far as my eyes could see, their colors as vivid as my eyes could see. How long did I stand there, rooted to the ground and awestruck?
Christmases have come and gone, but I will always remember that day in Wellington where a sight too wondrous and spiritual for words took my breath away. Not for me carols and crowds and caveats (do this, don’t do this). Show me nature in all its beauty and Christmas may yet regain its meaning for me…
Why am I telling you a travel tale and what does it have to do with a Korean movie? Because watching Duelist (2005), I experienced the same rapturous feelings as I did that day in Wellington.
From the moment the movie opened with the lightning flashes, I was spellbound. Everything about it was magical and I felt like a child watching a circus for the first time. My senses, assaulted from all directions, cried out, “More, I want more!”
Here was poetry in motion, a tango with swords. I loved everything about it, every single thing. The music, the humor, the pathos, the reversal of roles (he so beautiful, she so tomboyish). There was so much unspoken heartache and underlying yearning.
(Why do people say there’s no story? But there is! At its crux is a story of forbidden love, a man and woman on opposite sides of the law who fall in love despite themselves. It’s as simple as that, as heartbreaking as that.)
And the images… Can I walk you through the images and tell you how they made me sigh with sheer bliss? In one scene Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won) is strolling in the marketplace. A feather flutters down, he catches it, and it makes him sneeze. How childlike! How exquisite!
And every time I hear a character ask in a K-drama or movie, “What is your name?” I remember how Sad Eyes asked Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won) that same question, the barely audible way he asked it, his voice so soft and gentle. And how she blurted out the answer, then caught herself and fibbed instead, and how he saw right through her lie and embarrassment, and smiled. Oh, I can watch that scene over and over, my palms cupping my chin, a silly grin on my face.
But this movie that I love so much… is also hated by many. They call it a confusing mishmash of genres and some people even walk out midway through a screening. Reviewers slam it for being a movie with no story and deride it as trash masquerading as art.
My Duelist… described as garbage? I used to get mad with the harsh reviews, but now I don’t care anymore. In a fire I will grab my set (with its scrumptious special features, loved as much as the movie itself) and run. On a street in New York City three years ago, I was on the verge of hysteria thinking I had lost the soundtrack CD.
Yes, I’m that crazy about Duelist. Whether it’s for purely visceral reasons, or emotional or spiritual or whatever, the movie is a drug. I’ve watched it ten times and will gleefully watch it a hundred times more. Because no matter how often I watch it, it always feels like that first time three years ago. That same high.