Action, romance, intrigue, slapstick... Korean epic Duelist has a bit of everything. But sadly it doesn't add up to very much other than a few balletically choreographed scuffles. And even those aren't a patch on Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Set in the 17th century, it's about a female detective and a sulky swordsman who fall in love while fighting. But the real opponents here are style and substance, the former kicking the latter to death in a flurry of spectacular but empty gestures.
Behind the central one-on-one lies a counterfeit-coin conspiracy that you don't need to worry about too much. Director/co-writer Lee Myung-se (Nowhere To Hide) certainly hasn't. Sufficed to say that tomboy 'tec Namsoon's (Ha Ji-won) investigation of the funny money brings her into conflict with Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won), who's in league with a minister plotting to topple the government.
"FROM PLAYFUL TO PRECIOUS"
The resulting romance is barely given room to breathe; Lee is too busy with colour co-ordination, swishy scene transitions and speeding up chase sequences a la The Benny Hill Show. There's further fun to be had in an alleyway night-fight where only the combatants' flashing blades are visible. Little of this will cause Zhang Yimou to lose sleep, but it's a welcome distraction from the flabby storytelling. A shame, then, that Duelist turns from playful to precious in the last 30-odd minutes, straggling towards a prancey showdown that's as graceful as all get-out but as cold as the endless falling snow.
Duelist is released in UK cinemas on Friday 9th March 2007.