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'Geochilmaru: The Showdown' [DVD Review]

2006/04/23 Source

Unique blend of a naturalistic, low-key approach and wry, quirky humor

Kyu Hyun Kim (internews)

Murim Jijon, (in Korean means "The Ultimate Among Martial Artists") an internet website devoted to all things martial arts, is embroiled in a controversy over the identity of a mysterious contributor, known only as "Geochilmaru (a vernacular Korean name roughly meaning "The Toughest and Best")".

When the members of the site challenge Geochilmaru that he is all talk and no action, he responds by selecting eight among them and giving them a chance to fight him.

Production Notes

A Sponge/Mongmaru Production.

Directed by Kim Jin-seong. Screenplay by Byeon Won-mi and Kim Jin-seong. Starring Kwon Min-gi, Kim Jin-myeong, Sung Hong-il, Oh Mi-jeong, Yoo Yang-rae, Yoo Ji-hoon, Jang Tae-sik, Choi Jin-yong.

Cinematography by Choi Young-min. International sales by Sponge. 86 min.
oming from radically diverse social backgrounds and specializing in various martial arts skills such as kickboxing, wushu (formerly known as kungfu), taekwondo, judo and even "street fighting", the chosen eight are whisked off to a snowy mountain in the Gangwon Province. Geochilmaru then asks them to fight one another, until only one winner stands in the end. He or she will be granted the privilege to meet and fight Geochilmaru in person.

A classic setup for a kung fuchop-socky extravaganza? Or a kimchi-and-rice version of "Game of Death", right? Wrong.

Loosely based on a TV show segment on the contemporary Korean practitioners of martial arts, "Geochilmaru" retains the type of affectionate naturalism we associate with an indie documentary project.

The film is completely devoid of immaculately choreographed wire-strung action moves or CGI-augmented ballet-like kicks and punches thrown by the beautiful, perfectly coiffed stars. Instead, Director Kim Jin-seong lets the actors essentially play themselves, a bunch of martial arts enthusiasts who find simple pleasures in pushing the capacity of their bodies to the limit.

The characters are reasonably colorful, but also charmingly large-as-life: Cheolsajang (Oh Mi-jeong), a beautiful wushu practitioner decked out in gorgeous, scarlet Chinese costume, whose day job is a kindergarten teacher: Musashi66 (Yoo Yang-rae), a long-legged, nattily dressed stockbroker who is also a kick-butt Thai boxer: Mohican (Kwon Min-gi), a blonde-haired wushu master who may or may not be Geochilmaru: Marshmallow (Kim Jin-myeong), a shy and polite college student with the hidden strength of a greatly annoyed 500-pound grizzly bear: and so on.

Since there are no stars, we cannot predict who is going to win a match (except that we know Blue Jeans, played by Jang Tae-sik, is set up to be one of the final contenders, as he remains the identification figure for the audience).

The fights themselves are exciting, humorous, painful, graceful, and quite unexpectedly touching. The brutal slug-fest between the towering Musashi66 and the diminutive boxer Beatbox (Choi Jin-yong) ends, as we can easily predict, with the latter being pummeled into bloody pulp.

But when, after conceding his defeat, Beatbox smiles up at Musashi66 and says, "It was a good learning experience", you can feel the authenticity of his response that I suspect could not have been reproduced by a star performer in a big-budget studio project.

One of the toughest questions that I am often asked from my non-Korean friends about Korean cinema is "What do you think is the movie that only Koreans could have made, aside from the fact that it is obviously set in Korea, filmed in Korean language, etc.?"

In 2005 I have seen two films that I believe qualify as answers to this question. One is "The Unforgiven". The other is "Geochilmaru: The Showdown".

"Geochilmaru" is a unique blend of a naturalistic, low-key approach and wry, quirky humor, more appropriate for a documentary on rare species of birds than a martial arts film, and a genuine passion for bodily movement and exertion, sometimes expressed in bloody outbursts of direct, physical violence unmediated by the sophisticated (and expensive) cinematic devices.

Its real magic, however, lies in the fact that when the movie is over, you are momentarily swept away with the exhilaration felt by the film's characters, smiling through their purple bruises and bloody lips, happy as toddlers who are learning for the first time how to jump, that they could kick, throw, punch to their heart's content.

It won't Surprise me if you are wearing the same type of slightly goofy but Buddha-like smile as the end credits roll.

DVD Presentation:

KD Media DVD. Region 3. Dual Layer. Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0. Subtitles: Korean, English. Released in January 2006.

"Geochilmaru", being a low-budget film, will never qualify as a demo DVD, but KD Media has done a respectable job with the transfer and supplements. The 1.85:1 letterboxed presentation is a bit tight on the sides, and some scenes have a rough-and-tumble look with considerable grain and flares.

Overall, though, the transfer does justice to the film, with a minimum of encoding problems and appropriate contrast levels, except perhaps during the snowbound climactic match.

The supplements include a making-of docu, deleted scenes, blooper reels and actor interviews. Making-of docu, short at approximately 12 minutes, is basically an extended discussion of the film project by Director Kim Jin-seong, whose enthusiasm and level-headed approach to both martial arts and the film's characterization are refreshing.

However, the actor interviews, obviously the most significant supplement at more than 18 minutes, are a bit disappointing. They include too much footage from the film and too much pontification from the actors, who are obviously sincere, about the spiritual benefits of practicing martial arts. Regrettably, neither is subtitled in English.

Deleted scenes (appx. 8 minutes), presented in the unmasked 1.33:1 ratio, are mostly short snippets that add a few details to the characters of Blue Jeans and Killer Smile.

Far more interesting are a collection of blooper reels (appx. 9 minutes). The "practice" match between Blue Jeans and Mohican, for instance, truly looks like a mating dance between two species of birds. The scene was probably cut because it does not remotely look like martial arts action, but this and other raw footage show that, even for the purposefully "unsophisticated" martial arts moves in "Geochilmaru", their primary appeal is its grace and beauty.

"Geochilmaru" is yet one more evidence, as far as I am concerned, that martial arts, as presented in cinema, are closer to dance than to sports.

Kyu Hyun Kim is Associate Professor of Japanese and Korean History, University of California, Davis.

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