16 May 2013


KOREAN MOVIE  RECAP: (With some extra reviewing stuff because apparently I hadn't already talked myself dry on this topic!)

Well this is a movie that I cannot for the life of me stop thinking about, and now after my second watch through (this time on a real DVD on my massive TV instead of the darker and visually more dodgy internet version) I can honestly say it is one of my all time absolute favourite movies ever and is, in my opinion at least, beyond perfect in every way.
I have already written a review for this movie but as I find myself still driven to write more (and more and more!) I have decided to have a go at writing a recap. Now this will be my first ever recap and I have only covered the first 20 minutes of the film so please forgive me if it is not very awesome as I am still very new to this. I may try writing the rest of it up in the future but for now anyway I think the first 20 minutes will be enough!!

I have read a hell of a lot of recaps in the time since my drama obsession began and find it interesting that there don't seem to be any movie recaps floating around the internet, as I tend to find Korean movies to be just as worthy of squealy obsessivness as their drama  counterparts, and it is for this reason that I will give this a go.
Hopefully it doesn't suck!

To start off, I just wanted to write a few words on the cast of this movie, beginning with Ha Ji Won.  Interestingly enough, as an actress she has never particularly appealed to me at all, and I haven’t really enjoyed any of her other projects that I have seen.
This previous dislike of Ha Ji Won makes her turn as the detective Namsoon in this film such a refreshing revelation and surprise for me, as I honestly loved everything about her performance here.  She is so over the top with her facial expressions and body language that it could have come across cartoonish, yet instead I found her to be raw and real as a woman who is completely ruled by her emotions with never a thought to hide those emotions from her face or her actions.
This character trait of Namsoon’s really makes her such a perfect foil for her counterpart, the mysterious Sad Eyes, an enigma of a man who keeps his thoughts and emotions hidden deep. He barely speaks throughout the entire movie, expressing himself almost entirely via his eyes in a restrained and beautifully sad performance by Kang Dong-won  (Yay! Kang Dong-won!).  
Sad Eyes quiet inertia and unquestioning obedience to his household and father figure, Minister Song, has reduced him to something less than a human being, almost just a tool to be used, an idea particularly emphasised by the fact that his true name is never once used or even remembered throughout the entire film.

Another note I wanted to make before I start with the actual recap is that it is interesting just how much a second watching of a film can unlock its hidden secrets.  Going into this movie for the second time already understanding the basics of the plot just seemed to open up the narrative to me, making the story so much more accessible and linear, revealing character motivations and subtle shifts in ways I completely missed the first time.  It actually changed my opinions vastly from what I thought was originally just weird and confusing (albeit still wonderful), into something completely cohesive and clever, with a narrative and plot that makes perfect sense.

I actually re-watched this film with Mr Pops, who is notoriously hard to please when it comes to Korean movies and dramas.  He is lovely so never complains about my crazy Korean obsession but he just tolerates rather than enjoys the dramas and movies I occasionally make him watch with me. In this case though, much to my surprise and pleasure, he said ‘Duelist’ was an amazing movie, even offering some interesting insights into the film, many of which I hadn't even noticed myself.

My favourite thing he said is about how he thought the entire movie is filmed as if it is a dream sequence which, once it was pointed out to me, I couldn’t help but notice was true.  
The way the scenes are cut together, jumping instantaneously from shot to shot, sometimes misleading and often leaving the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the blanks, truly does give the movie a strange dreamlike quality.  
And once you realise and accept this aspect of the film, I thought it really made everything much easier to decipher and understand, in the same way that strange dreams make sense at the time because you just accept their strangeness and don’t question the oddities within them.

Also, regarding the storytellers strange interludes, although seemingly irrelevant to the plot, (something I found jarring and hard to accept the first time I watched it) are somehow still used effectively to tie everything together (appearing at the beginning, middle and end of the film) in a way that makes the viewer almost feel like an outsider throughout the movie, looking into yet another one of the storytellers odd tales, founded in just enough truth to make us believe in it and care, but still strange and not completely real in its tragic surreal beauty.

This movie is so deeply affecting for me, it’s simple love story profoundly and emotionally moving, with the chemistry between the lead actors so strong and charged with longing that I can truly believe I am watching two people fall deeply in love.  


Set in Joseon, the movie opens on a dark night, rain and lightning flashing as a man (the storyteller) spins a tale of a visit he made to a young woman’s house to deliver some goods. It is creepy and dark, with flowers growing thick in her courtyard, not to mention the fact that she is ultra strange, the mood growing slowly more ominous as she searches through her home for rice wine. Not that the storyteller notices anything weird (she is pretty sexy after all) and he doesn't seem turned off in the slightest. The scene ends with a close up off her ‘tight’  bum (as the storyteller puts it) before he suddenly begins to scream in horror at something we can't see....

Only to be interrupted by his listeners, all sitting around at a table in a grimy tavern on a sunny day. Just as the storyteller is about to conclude his tale, they are interrupted again, this time by a man wearing an eyepatch who insults them, calling them low class bastards and basically just being a bit of a dick.

And then we cut suddenly to  a bunch of circus folk entertaining in the hot dusty market, all saturated bright colours and slow dragging movements as a man wearing a white horsehair wig and wooden mask that hides his entire face begins to dance with a sword, graceful and deadly.

Elsewhere in the market we see a peasant looking guy selling taffy to the market folk, though he seems more preoccupied with watching all the people who pass around him,  particularly a bunch of men walking by all clad in more the more upperclass Hanbok with the black ‘Gats’ (horsehair hats) who seem to be on a bit of a shady mission.

Next we cross to a woman, Namsoon, dressed as a rough peasant and selling wine at a colourful stall.  But when a thief runs by we see that she is much more than she seems, she trips him easily with her foot, suddenly all serious and calculated action.

The scene cuts again, perhaps to a little later in the day, and we can see the circus entertainers still dancing and doing acrobatics in the centre of the market place, the sword dancer still leaping and turning gracefully in his routine.   
Namsoon has left her stall and is walking purposely through the stalls, bumping into the taffy man (and stealing his taffy without paying..heh!) before she smacks straight into some other men, distracted by the dancing swordsman in the mask.  The men she has bumped into look like thugs or gangsters and are led by the Eyepatch Dude from the inn.
These new guys look pretty tough but Namsoon gives as good as she gets, equally as scary and not deterred at all by their threats, pulling a crazy angry face at them. Things look like they are about to boil over until suddenly the masked swordsman cuts between them, not saying anything but still easily defusing the situation with his unexpected presence between them.  The thugs get bored and go on their way.

The swordsman backs away from Namsoon slowly, still twirling and dancing as he is gradually immersed back into the multitude of circus performers, stalls and bright colours behind him.  Everything slows down as Namsoon stares and for a moment it is like he is performing just for her benefit alone.  A small smile creeps onto her face until the taffy guy and some other commoner looking dudes turn up, and she wipes her expression clean as if embarrassed to be caught out.

And then they all start this hilarious march through the marketplace in time to the music, all with grim determination on their faces. And boy does Namsoon look tough, strutting her way through the dust.
Everyone is on the move now, traveling with purpose in the same direction, the thugs led by Eyepatch Dude as well as the more highclass Hanbok wearing guys, the scenes intercut with images of the swordsman still dancing.  There is a fun freeze frame on each of the parties when they finally arrive at their destination, and then one of the Hanbok guys begin to conduct  some sort of shady deal with a newcomer who arrives with a horse and cart filled with bags.

Elsewhere curtains open on the dancer and his audience claps uncertainly as he begins to twirl and leap ever more aggressively towards them, finally breaking right through the line of people watching.  He makes a mad dash through the winding laneways, leaping past the colourful stalls and twisting his way across the dusty earth until he is amongst the gangs, who all regard him with surprise where they stand still waiting.   

There is a lovely slow motion shot as the masked man twirls past Namsoon, but then he leaps right inbetween the two dealing men, slashing them down violently (shock! Horror! he was so pretty and swirly!), killing them on the spot as he steals the golden statue they were selling. 

All the gangs converge on him in fury but it’s too late and he sends the horse galloping wildly towards them, bags of coins falling from the cart and scattering open in its wake as the animal tears madly through the marketplace, sending everyone running madly after it.  Crowds suddenly form at the appearance of the money and it is absolute mayhem, dust and screams as merchandise is toppled over and clouds of dirt rise up into the air. Only the swordsman still stands still and calm at the head of the chaos.
In the sea of people all running for the money, the taffy guy (who shall henceforth be known as Detective Ahn) yells to his subordinates (policemen) that they must protect the wagon. But Namsoon ignores him, watching with a look of fury on her face as the swordsman slowly turns away, and soon she is fighting through the crowd to go after him.  He moves slowly, turning back to watch her progress amongst the mayhem that surrounds her.
Detective Ahn and the other policemen basically get pummeled by the crowd as they do their best to protect the money and the wagon, and the whole scene just turns into a bunch of dusty people all crawling on top of each other in a huge and desperate human anthill.  Eyepatch Dude manages to break free from the crowd with a bag of money,  and the music turns rather ridiculous (but also quite suitable) as Detective Ahn chases him down in a slow motion action chase set to classical music.  He manages to get the money but Eyepatch Dude gets away, leaving Detective Ahn to be squished by about a million people as he screams out the name, 'Nammsooooon'!

Meanwhile Namsoon has finally caught up to the masked dancer and she puts on her best 'I am freaking tough and crazy so don't mess with me’ face, which is actually pretty bloody impressive.  She tells him to 'Do or die' and he cocks his head, looking a little confused (or as much as you can through a wooden mask), so she tries again though she seems just as unsure of what exactly she is trying to say as he is.  She eventually gives up and yells at him furiously, telling him to give the statue over.

And for a moment it actually looks like he will, but after feigning dropping the statue, the masked man instead runs directly towards her with his sword drawn, causing her to roll through the dust to avoid it.   Namsoon stands and calmly takes out knives that were strapped to her leg under her dress,  attacking him with a smile on her face.  
But after only the first lunge they both stop frozen, each seemingly a little surprised by the others capabilities. 
She has managed to slice some sort of token he was carrying in half, and it now lies in two pieces in the dust at their feet.  Her hair begins to fall around her face, come undone from his sword stroke and the man turns back to show that she has also sliced into his mask.  He slowly reaches up and removes one single piece,  leaving his left eye bare and uncovered.
The moment is long, drawn out and slow until Namsoon suddenly makes a leap for the sliced token, only to be beaten at the last second by Eyepatch Dude who suddenly appears and grabs half of it, leaving her in a pile on the dusty ground with what is left.

The swordsman slowly sheathes his sword, watching her get back to her feet as the crowd converges on them in full.  Under the cover of the jostling people he slowly removes his mask and we see a shot of his feet as he walks away, carelessly dropping the wooden mask and the white wig to the dusty ground as he goes, using the crowd to disappear just as Detective Ahn turns up with more guards.

Namsoon however is still following the swordsman, and she tails him successfully to a cloth dying street with brightly coloured sheets of material hanging down between the buildings to dry.  As they hunt each other down the alleyways, their shadows mix behind the bright material in such a beautiful and surreal way,  their faces swapping each time they come into view but their shadows still moving as one person.

It is so beautiful until suddenly Namsoon breaks the spell by falling incredibly ungracefully into a large pot of dye, screaming in frustration and disgust (which is quite funny).  She strips off her long skirt and then, wearing just the trousers and short jacket of her marketplace disguise, she begins the chase in earnest, her intense fury overwhelming as she throws herself after the swordsman.  

Namsoon is seemingly held back by every single piece of material she crashes into, but the swordsman moves effortlessly ahead just beyond her reach, calm and almost slow as he looks back at her over his shoulder, the sun blinding so we never quite see his face.  
And when they reach another darker alley, Namsoon loses him completely.  



So that is all I will do at the moment, just an outline of the beginning of the movie and also Namsoon and Sad Eye's first meeting. Maybe I will finish it at some point but maybe not, we will see!



  1. I just finished this movie a few hours ago and the emotions from it still run through me. It's sad that it gets terrible reviews by many so I'm happy when I see a positive one. But I guess it all comes down to taste and perspective. Or maybe I'm too simple. So thank you for sharing your thoughts on it.

    I loved all things that were implied. The art. The body expressions/movements. I appreciate it when the director is able to convey something to the viewer without saying it. The sword fight tangos... and even the simple look in the eyes of the two main leads. Although the story wasn't much...for a dreamer like me, the simplicity of it allowed me fill in the blanks. Their romance. I think that's why I loved this movie so much. Although I love a good story...every now and then, I enjoy being able to use my own imagination.

  2. I know right? I think it is one of the most beautiful movies ever made and I like what you said about it appealing to a dreamer. I think I agree with that. Its got this deamy quality to the whole thing that does leave so much to the imagination, which can be a very good thing. And yeah for me it is such a beautiful romance so that I don't understand how anyone can say it has no story, isn't a love story enough?
    I have seen it so many times already and it always leaves me with such lingering feelings when I am done, like I can't get it out of my head for days.
    Thanks so much for reading :-)