Here’s a secret about the low-budget Korean martial arts movie “The Showdown” — it starts off poorly, proceeds even worst, but by the halfway point the film starts to morph into something respectable. Not a great movie by any stretch, mind you, but nevertheless strangely enjoyable. Sort of. If you’ve heard that “The Showdown” is the Korean version of Ryuhei Kitamura’s breakthrough hit “Versus”, it is — and it isn’t. Yes, the two films share similar pedigrees, but whereas Kitamura opted for a 2-hour gorefest and martial arts combat drowned in throbbing techno, Jin-sung Kim goes the 90 minute route with comedy, healthy doses of fisticuffs, and what can generously be called a stab at a life lesson or something thereabouts.
The film stars a bunch of people you’ve never heard of, shot on a moderate budget by a first-time director, and has all the visual appeal of your average low-budget zombie movie shot on a shoestring budget. Except it’s all in Korean. Which is to say, the film doesn’t look very good. In fact, it looks downright dreadful for most of its running time, owing in no small part to lack of resources and unexceptional talent behind the camera.
The film is about a group of martial artists who are members of a popular website where the members spend their time discussing martial arts theory. Having tired of online chatter, eight of them are invited by a mysterious member name Geochilmaru to visit him in his mountain retreat, where he promises to prove his mettle in person. Among the group hoping for the fight of their lives are: mild-mannered Tae-sik, a dojo instructor; a pretty female kindergarten teacher who goes by Iron Palm; a gangster name Killingsmile with a huge chip on his shoulder; (sorta) hippie guy Mohican; a hip-hop kid named Beatbox; a Muay Thai kickboxer who is a stock broker by day; a loudmouth stuntman itching for a bruising; and finally, a slightly overweight Judo wrestler.
Although it eventually becomes something worthwhile for the undemanding viewer, “The Showdown” is handicapped by a first act that is all poor camera angles, bad acting, stilted dialogue, and 30 or so minutes of pointless meandering, basically consisting of the would-be fighters boarding a van that shuffles them off to Geochilmaru. Along the way, the fighters argue (mostly the result of the loudmouth stuntman being, well, a loudmouth), show each other their moves, and generally suffer the rudeness of bellicose street fighter Killingsmile. A thug by trade, Killingsmile considers all this martial arts theory pointless, and is itching to prove it. One wonders, then, why he’s there at all, or how such an uneducated, uncivilized thug ever figured out how to turn on a computer, much less chat online.
But wait, there’s a hitch. By the time the group reaches their destination, they are informed that only one of them may have the privilege of fighting Geochilmaru, and it’s up to them to decide who gets the honor. Unable to choose, the fighters embark on the only course left — fight it out, with the winner bestowed the right to face Geochilmaru. But does Geochilmaru even exists? Stuntman Everafter doesn’t think so, and spends most of the movie getting beaten by the other fighters and wondering if one of them is really the Geochilmaru they’ve come to do battle with.
One of “The Showdown’s” selling points is its casting of real fighters in the roles, although I suspect the actor playing gangster Killingsmile might be an actor by trade. Although there are fights aplenty, the film also indulges in comedy, some of which are a tad odious. Most of this comes from a bumbling cop whose attempts to pick up a delivery girl are thwarted when the fighters arrive in his country town. The cop follows the fighters into the mountains, where, as they say, hilarity ensues. Well, not actual hilarity, but some stabs at comedy.
I find myself unable to fully recommend “The Showdown”, as it completely fails to live up to expectations. Most viewers who actively seek out the film will be approaching it as a Korean version of “Versus”, and indeed, even Jin-sung Kim seems to understand that he’s doing a film very similar to Kitamura’s own low-budget kickfest if the sudden bursts of techno during the fights are any indication. Unfortunately Kim doesn’t fully embrace Kitamura’s high-voltage style, and as a result most of the fights in “The Showdown” are all down-to-Earth and realistic. It’s also easy to accept the filmmaker’s premise that real martial artists were cast in the roles, as their abilities do in fact come through onscreen (again, with the exception of the actor playing Killingsmile, who I contend is actually an actor, and not a real fighter).
The second half of “The Showdown” proves that this is a good, if not extraordinary first effort by Jin-sung Kim, but the first half will have most viewers wondering if they should cut their losses before the 30-minute mark. Even action junkies won’t completely embrace “The Showdown”, because although it has a lot of action, they’re not of the stylish variety lovers of the genre usually associate with similar entries. Don’t watch “The Showdown” if you want wild, “out there” fighting; there are some good matches (the Muay Thai boxer pitting his brute strength against the agility of the hippie’s fluid kung fu is a keeper), but just keep this in mind if you decide to seek out “The Showdown”: It may sound like “Versus”, but it ain’t.
Jin-sung Kim (director)
CAST: Dae Won Kim ….
Jin-myung Kim ….
Min-ki Kwon ….