It’s safe to say that, in the annals of martial arts cinema, Geochilmaru will never go down as a classic of the genre. However, in this day and age where even the smallest display of martial arts on the silver screen quickly becomes a CGI and wire-assisted spectacle, there’s something quite refreshing, and even affecting, about the lo-fi approach that Geochilmaru takes.
The basic premise is as old as the genre: a group of eight martial arts devotees have been invited to sqaure off against eachother in a tournament, with the winner taking on a legendary master known only as “Geochilmaru.” But the film finds some clever ways to update the tried and true plot. For starters, this is no period piece. Rather, it’s set in modern day Korea, where cellphones and Internet access abound. And in this internet-savvy setting, it only makes sense that all of the combants know eachother, and “Geochilmaru,” via Internet discussion forum.
As the eight men and women travel to the duel’s remote locale (in a battered RV, no less), we get small bits of backstory (though character development is certainly not this film’s strong suit). Though teachers, accountants, bouncers, and hip-hop dancers in “real” life, they’ve all spent their lives practicing judo, kickboxing, kung fu, hapkido, and boxing. And as they travel to meet Geochilmaru, we get several displays of martial arts prowess, as the characters decide to work out on-line discussions about the efficacy of various martial arts forms, stances, and ideologies face to face.
The film itself has a very low budget look to it, though thankfully, it never feels too campy. Sets are nonexistent, with most of the dialog taking place inside an RV and most of the duels taking place in the rural countryside amidst abandoned houses and barns. Which is to say that the film has “low budget” written all over it.
But in this case, that’s definitely a strength. Geochilmaru clocks in under 90 minutes, which means that everything is kept quite lean. While this does result in the aforementioned lack of character development, it also means that most of the film dwells on what you’re really there to see: the fights.
It’s here that the film ultimately shines. Director Kim Jin-seong made the very wise decision of casting actual masters in all of the roles, rather than actors who’ve only spent a month in training. And so, while the acting is even less of a strong suit than the character development, the martial arts are all topnotch as each combatant shows off their chosen style’s particular advantages.
We get to see boxing versus kickboxing, judo versus kung fu, hapkido versus kickboxing, and so on. The fights are certainly nowhere near as flashy as, say, Yuen Woo-Ping or Donnie Yen’s fare, but there’s still something incredibly cool about watching bona fide martial arts experts squaring off. True, there are some obvious pulled punches, and some flashy camerawork is used to gloss over a few flaws here and there, but the rough, unpolished nature of their duels is still readily apparent, and that is quite exciting in its own right.
The film does try to raise some suspense and intrigue, as the various characters begin suspecting that one of them might not be entirely on the up and up, but may in fact be the fabled “Geochilmaru” trying to pull one over on them. And it also tries to inject some humor as one of the martial artists, a loudmouthed stuntman, is quickly revealed to be less of a fighter than his online persona claims to be. But much more interesting are the questions the film raises about the role and usefulness of martial arts in the modern world, a la Arahan (though with much less flair and bombast). The characters may reign supreme on their website, but in the real world, they’re subject to abuse and ridicule.
This is particularly the case in the film’s arguable main character, a young man named Tae-sik who has devoted his entire life to kung fu. In flashbacks and voiceovers, we learn that his family has shunned him, his girlfriend has left him (after cheating on him numerous times), and he spends his days driving students back and forth to the small dojo he also calls home. Tae-sik drive to push himself in the contest, his striving to prove — if only to himself — that there is some value in all of his endeavors proves to be the film’s most affecting aspect.
Geochilmaru won’t earn any hallowed positions, and chances are that folks will only be able to see this via Asian imports (I can’t see any domestic distributors dropping coin to pick this one up anytime soon). But it’s clear that the film, with its scrappy look and obvious, positive touting of martial arts philosophies and ideologies, is a labor of love for all involved. And I, for one, find that sort of earnestness rather endearing, and flashy wire-technics be damned.