Director: Kim Jin-sung
Cast: Jang Tae-sik, Sung Hong-il, Kwon Min-gi, Yu Rang-rae, Hong Seung-hun, Mi-jeong Oh
Duration: 86 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
My memory of Geochilmaru – The showdown being released in 2005 is one that has been dragged to the coals in almost every review it has received. Now, in hindsight 18 years later, I’d theorize that there are a couple of factors contributing to the derision it received at the time. The first is that 2005 was still the pinnacle of what has come to be known as the Korean film wave, referring to the country’s output that rose to prominence in the 2000s. Films such as Memories of murder, Old boyAND A story of two sisters had made high production values and a bold sense of storytelling the standard, so for those who went blind, with no budget, shot on digital combat film with minimal plot it must have seemed like a bad joke.
Similarly, in 2005, the post-millennial DTV action genre didn’t command much respect, clogged with lackluster efforts from the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme. It would be the following years Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing which showed the full potential of what could be done on a limited budget if you had the right talent both behind and in front of the camera, and a dedicated fan base following suit. However, with no established audience to come to his defense, Geochilmaru (as I’ll call it from now on) has slipped into obscurity, so hidden that it doesn’t even appear in those fickle lists of “fight movies that have flown under the radar” that appear every now and again.
Flash forward to 2023 and digitally shot low-budget DTV fight films have become the blueprint for the genre, making a legitimate case for that Geochilmaru it was ahead of its time when it came to providing combat action on a shoestring budget. One of those movies that has sat on my “curious list” for more years than I’d like to remember, it was about time I finally got to check it out and see if it really deserved those scathing comments since its release, or has it gotten better with age?
In terms of plot, things couldn’t get past 2005 if they tried. The opening narration explains how the popularity of the internet has seen everything go online, including martial artists. In one particular chat room, a legendary fighter who calls himself Geochilmaru is famous for his tales of martial arts prowess, so when he issues a challenge that offers an opportunity to fight him in person, 8 of the members decide to take it on it . Gathered in a battered RV, we meet each of them via on-screen text presenting their chat alias, occupation, height, weight, and martial arts style. Represented in the group are kung-fu, kickboxing, taekwondo, hapkido, judo, boxing and street fighting, and perhaps by Geochilmaru the biggest selling point is that real martial artists were cast in the roles.
Except for Sung Hong-il (The avian type, Unfairplay) who plays an overly confident stuntman, for the other 7 Geochilmaru it remains their only film credit. For a bunch of non-actors, each does a decent job in the acting department, with plenty of musings on martial arts philosophy and discussing their style that no doubt sound like conversations they’re likely to have in real life. Jang Tae-sik plays the role closest to the protagonist, being the character that the audience is initially introduced to and whose journey we follow. Tae-sik also contributed to the choreography, though it’s fair to say that all of the main cast probably contributed ideas to the fight scenes.
It is while he is in the camper that the driver plays a tape with a message from Geochilmaru, in which he informs the passengers that each of them has a necklace. Only one of them can have the honor of facing the mythical fighter, so each has to fight each other, the loser gives their necklace to the winner of the fight. In order to have the opportunity to fight Geochilmaru face to face, they will have to present all the necklaces to prove that they have defeated all others along the way. Set on a snowy mountain and its immediate surroundings, what unfolds is essentially a series of fight scenes between the 8 cast members, each pitting one specific style against another.
The antithesis of flashy and intricately choreographed fight scenes, the fights here intentionally lean towards a more realistic and grounded approach, with I daresay some moves likely executed on the fly based on the skill and instinct of the performer. The camerawork may not always be optimally positioned, sometimes shots are too close-up or at angles that betray a drawn punch, but those are minor gripes in what are for the most part refreshingly gritty penalties. Kwon Min-gi as a wushu practitioner is extraordinary and also brings a certain amount of charisma to the screen which makes it a shame that this is the only time he appears on screen. The same goes for Yu Rang-rae as a kickboxing broker who never takes off his suit, with his beach brawl against the streetfighter being a piecemeal and exhausting highlight.
Geochilmaru it was the second feature film produced by director Kim Jin-sung after the 2002 one Surpriseand would go on to make just one more film in the form of Eleventh mom in 2007, after which he too disappeared into obscurity. Considering that none of his other films are related to martial arts, it only serves to make Geochilmaru even more of an oddity, however it definitely benefits from having a legitimate director at the helm. There’s a welcome sense of humor throughout, usually carried by the more established cast members. Sung Hong-il as a stuntman out of the depth of him brings the biggest laughs, who after getting punched in every fight he gets into, asks “Are you Geochilmaru!?” to who defeated him every time. Likewise for Hong Seung-hun (Please teach me english, Emergency measure 19) as a bumbling cop, amusingly breaking up a couple of fights much to the fighter’s chagrin.
Though shot digitally in the early days of the DTV film format, Jin-sung uses its resources wisely. Most of the dialogue between the characters takes place in the back of the RV, while all the fighting takes place outside and is lit. Credit also goes to the choice of locations, with the snowy mountainous landscape providing a naturally cinematic view whether shot on a digital or 35mm handheld camera, allowing for fights to take place against eye-catching temples, beaches, buddha statues, and rivers.
Although there should be no doubt about this Geochilmaru sells itself primarily in its fight scenes, there is an underlying philosophical message that is present throughout about what it means to be a martial artist. Despite characters being beaten, bloodied, and bruised, all fights end amicably, with the loser realizing they’ve learned something from the defeat or discussing the challenges in an attempt to adjust to another fighter’s style. Helping hugely is that the cast, despite their inexperience in acting, have a nice chemistry between them, helping overlook some of the less than stellar moments or joke delivery.
Despite its rough feel, it’s clear that everyone is involved Geochilmaru, especially those on camera, are completely invested in its premise and give it their all. While it would be easy to write this as a low-budget collection of loosely connected fight scenes based on an internet chat discussion, those that do are probably missing the point. Inside is a surprisingly poignant message about being able to stay true to yourself, even if everyone around you is unable or unwilling to see the value in what you want to achieve, and at the end of the day we all probably have experienced that feeling at some point in our lives.
Paul Bramhall’s assessment: 7/10