South Korea checks in with their take on the martial arts tournament film. You know the style; think Enter the Dragon, Lau Kar Leung’s Heroes of the East or the (slightly silly, but quite entertaining) One-Armed Boxer Versus the Flying Guillotine. The backstory for this one, of course, is updated for the Web generation. Eight martial artists from different personal and pugilistic backgrounds are regulars on a martial arts themed website. One day, they’re summoned to fight the mysterious and highly skilled host of the website… an enigmatic figure named Geochilmaru.
Our fighters are known only by their pseudonyms, and are predominantly played by real martial artists. There’s a judo wrestler, a bantam-weight boxer, a tall, powerful kickboxer, a fluid, acrobatic wushu specialist, a female wushu master, a street fighter, a taekwando instructor and a film stunt man. On their way to the meeting place, however, they’re presented with a change in plan: only one of them will get to meet Geochilmaru, and they’ll have to choose a representative themselves.
Naturally, there’s only one way to choose. Their bus stops near the rendezvous point and they scatter, intending to meet up in pairs and fight for the right to meet their host. Necklaces are given to each of them, to be claimed by the victor after the end of each match: only someone with all eight necklaces will be able to face Geochilmaru.
This film was shot on a shoestring, and it shows: it’s shot on digital video, and a great deal of the acting and writing is clumsy, particularly near the start of the film. Once the battle for the necklaces starts, however, the film starts to show its strengths — the fights are gritty and look good for the most part, doubtless helped by the participants’ real-life proficiency. And they’re interesting matches, too, in the grand tradition of martial arts cinema, matching up very different martial arts traditions against each other. One of the highlights is a match between Musashi66, a kickboxer, and Mohican, a talented wushu fighter. A little more screen time is given to the stuntman, who’s evidently out of his league and there to provide comic relief, and the street fighter, who has a great deal more tenacity than technique.
Geochilmaru isn’t a particularly good film. I suspect that a general audience of people not into martial arts would be put off by the weak story and acting at the start of the film, and the single-minded focus on fight scenes afterwards. Martial arts fans, however, might be interested to see a modern film done the old-school way: no wires and no CGI, and a bunch of different martial arts disciplines all in the same film.
I’d be very surprised, too, if this is the last we see of some of the players. Several of them (in particular Musashi66 and Mohican, the kickboxer and wushu fighter) have obvious ability and act well given the film they’re in, and I’d love to see more of them. Hopefully we’ll see South Korea, like Thailand with Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, producing more martial arts cinema in the future.