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.

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Categorised in: K-movies, Reviews

45 Responses »

  1. The Duelist is not a movie. It should be a sidewalk, train station, an electronic board display/HD monitor display. It’s poetry. Every scene of it. You come back the next day and the same scene will still mesmerize you.

  2. Just coming back to say I love the ost of this movie, the Kang Dong Won and Ha Ji Won version. I play it everyday.

  3. I remember watching this movie a long time ago and it didn’t connect with me and largely feeling unimpressed and forgettable. As I am watching Secret Garden nowadays, I am itching to watch Ha Ji Won’s work and I decided to give this movie another try and to my surprise , I enjoyed it so much this time around and getting emotional watching it. This movie is definitely included as one of my favorite korean movies .

    Thanks for the wonderful review. Now I can appreciate all the artistic beauty and the lovers mating dance.

  4. I watched this a few years ago. Well, more like just watched the beginning… couldn’t get the quirky-voiced characters, the tomboyish HJW, wasn’t a fan of KDW then (egads! Sorry.), and the whole sword-fighting scene wasn’t how I’d envisioned it to be.

    I re-watched it a couple nights ago. L.O.V.E.D. it! The visuals took my breath away. I would like framed photos of some of those gorgeous scenes to decorate my walls with. LOL. And KDW/Sad Eyes…omg, what’s not to fall in love with?!?!!!

  5. one of the most beautiful endings have any movie……KDW and HJW were amazing…..

  6. I only found out about Duelist a while it ago- but it was the best kmovie I had ever watched, and it sparked my love for Kang Dong Won!!!! (after watching Duelist, i watched all of KDWs other work. Good thing he’s returning from the army real soon!) Duelist really tugged at your heartstrings, and the chemistry between sad eyes and namsun was sooo intense! It’s a shame that not many people loved it or enjoyed it as much as I did 😦

  7. Finally someone spoke exactly EACH and EVERY thought and feeling I have about this movie. It’s been my best friend in so many respects and I’ll be forever grateful to everyone who made it be and be THAT breathtakingly beautiful, every aspect of it. THANK YOU SO MUCH.

  8. YES. This movie is a piece of art …and yes, when I looking the review of Duelist (juts want to know how people reaction about this beautiful, magical movie), I found alot of bad review…at that time (like…8 years ago?). I think, maybe this movie too unique in his era? I mean, I watching it now, in 2013 and still feel how bizzare ( in a good way) this movie. I need adapted with the way Duelist tell the story in the beginning, but I already crying in the last duel.
    Buut, when u see 2005’s movie in 2013 and still feel fascinated..that meaning that a great and truly a high qualified movie, right? 🙂
    Oh, and I understand why a lot of people become KDW fans, because I think I become one of them too 😛 (in very late time, bcoz the truth, I even know Joo Won first before KDW…age wise )

  9. This movie is my all time favourite ever (along with Star wars….but that’s another story) and I think it is perfect in every possible way. It couldn’t possibly have been more beautiful or affecting and I will love it forever.

    Thanks for your positive review! It is such a relief to find others loved it as much as I did!

  10. Oh my… someone who loves Duelist as much as I did! I was also confused when I read the mixed reviews. But I guess some people will not get it. They want a typical love story where everything is spelled out for them.
    Well, I was worried to watch it too many times because I feared getting too used to it. …I don’t know…it’s just something I thought would happen. Good to know I can now proceed to rewatch it as many times as I’d like.


  12. I watch it on 2020, and OOHH! Wow, this is exactly what I found about this movie.. 15 years passed, but this movie already topped of my favorite movie of all time. I can rewatch it every time and never get bored! This gem can only been found by selected people and we are the selected people! Thank you for nice writing!

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  1. No crack like this crack – thundie's prattle

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