There's a tale told of a blacksmith who ventured out into a night time summer storm to go fix a lady's brass chamber pot. This did strike him as strange, and the lady was acting very oddly, but he opted to refuse payment in return for nourishment. However, she invited him to follow her up a ladder and when he caught sight of her behind as she climbed up - well, the story isn't finished because that's not the reason we're here, and besides one of the other customers in the bar has asked in no uncertain terms that such vulgarity be ceased. The character we're supposed to be following is Namsoon (Ha Ji-won), an undercover detective on the trail of counterfeiters. But she isn't anticipating what she will encounter in her investigations...
...affairs of the heart, naturally. Duelist, aka Hyeongsa, was one of the martial arts films to emerge from South Korea that placed the emphasis firmly on style, and truly it looked fantastic, a veritable kaleidoscope of colour, light and shade. But all the style in the world would not compensate for a limp story, and to that end writer and director Lee Myung-se, scripting with Lee Hae-jyung, decided to keep things simple. It was the old "fighting between members of the opposite sex as courtship" chestnut once again, we'd seen it before and for sure we'd see it again, but this time there was an overbalance between the potential lovers.
The reason is that tough girl Namsoon was delightfully portrayed by Ji-won Ha, not afraid to shout her head off or look daft if the scene demanded it, yet still look glamorous and believable as an object of desire: it's obvious what the man she has her sights set on sees in her, and a nice change from the male offering the source of the humour and eccentricity. Not only that, but her action sequences are convincing too, as Namsoon fights with two daggers rather than a sword and flings herself around the screen as if martial arts were going out of fashion. The thing is, the leading lady is so appealing that her counterpart, the mysterious Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won) layers on the enigma so far that he grows dangerously close to being a cypher.
What draws Namsoon and Sad Eyes together is the counterfeiting scandal, but how is the swordsman involved? The first time they meet Sad Eyes is wearing a mask and a wig of long white hair, but the detective is so skilled in combat she manages to stall him as he battles the criminals who are trying to make off with incriminating coins. It's not long before those coins are flooding the market, and it transpires that there's a conspiracy held to bring down the government by destroying the ecnomomy. Could it be that an ex-general and now government minister is behind all this? Could be. Namsoon and her sidekick must inflitrate the minister's mansion, but Sad Eyes has had the same idea and now that they're aware of a definite attraction between them, how will they resolve their relationship, if at all? There are a variety of techniques employed to sustain the visuals, even speeding up the film and using freeze frames, but it's Hwang Ki-seok's photography that you'll remember, that and the female lead's quirky allure. Music by Jo Sung-woo.