The Man From Nowhere (LKFF)
The biggest grossing film in Korea this year – it’s a totally gratifying action movie from start to finish…
Cha Tae-sik’s (Won Bin, Mother, Guns & Talks) unassuming existence as a small pawnshop owner hides a violent and painful past he’s never come to terms with. His only connection to the outside world comes from a friendship with his next-door neighbour’s daughter, So-mi (Kim Sae-ron, A Brand New Life).
When her mother, a hopeless addict and drug smuggler, gets in over her head with local gangsters, she puts both herself and her daughter in deadly danger, and drags Tae-sik back to the life he thought he left behind.
As he gets dragged into an underworld of human trafficking, organ harvesting and child slavery, Tae-sik decides that nothing will stop him from saving So-mi and her mother, whatever it takes, and boy – do those guys have no idea what they’ve let themselves in for. Can he save them and finally come to accept his previous life?
Director Lee Jeong-yeom (Cruel Winter Blues) has a gratifyingly honest and straightforward approach to action. He establishes the connection between the girl and Tae-sik and moves on, gradually escalating just how much he reveals of Tae-sik’s prowess as the situations escalate. It’s much less ponderous or cerebral than the work or some of his peers, with the director admitting in interviews that some of the more serious topics thrown up by the film are more constructs in order to put our lead protagonist in increasingly perilous situations.
As he promised in my interview with him before the screening, the film has a faster pace than you’d expect from a Korean thriller, developing the plot along at a rate more like a Bourne film, or the Luc Besson scripted Taken which was much of the inspiration for the story. Which might sound like a criticism, except, as films like the Bourne series prove, there’s not actually anything wrong with a well made action film. (Interestingly, it also ends up mirroring Dante Lam’s The Beast Stalker, where a non-family relation again stops at nothing to find and save a young girl in an attempt to finally resolve his past.)
Jeong-yeom grabs the opportunity to create an enjoyable action movie by both horns, throwing in some great lines for Tae-sik’s mainly silent character. He tells gang members that they ‘Came to the wrong place’ when they turn up at his pawnshop – they soon find out what he means. Later the lead henchman asks why he’s taken such an interest in saving the girl, despite the danger he’s put himself in, he simply replies, ‘Because she lived next door’.
Having spoken to Jeong-beom about the sort of films he’d like to make in the future, ones that embody elements of what the Chinese call ‘yanggang’, or bonding and brotherhood between men – as is so much a part of Hong Kong movies, but also plays a part in films like the leads Al Pachino and Robert De Niro in Heat, it’s interesting to see this is a big element of The Man From Nowhere. The villains lead henchman Ramrowan (Thanayong Wongtrakul) turns out to be the only real rival Tae-sik has, and as the film goes one it becomes obvious that they respect each others abilities, and even strongly hints that perhaps he’s not the ruthless monster he appears.
Won Bin throws himself fully into the role, convincing as a ruthless and even merciless killer despite his pretty boy looks. It’s one hell of a change from his last role as the mentally challenged son in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, particularly for Western audiences who know nothing of his previous career let alone his status as Korea’s biggest TV pin-up.
It was Won who discovered Jeong-beom’s script and decided he wanted to do it, not the other way around. He trained intensively in martial arts for three months before starting filming and it shows. Hell, he’s even perfected a Billy Idol style lip curl – and you know things are gonna turn nasty once that lips twitched!
Beautifully filmed, Jeong-beom keeps a tight rein in the action. Despite the work that went into creating them, the stunt coordinators, the wires, the effects technicians, they look grounded in the real world, there’s no superhuman strength or abilities on show. More importantly, the fights seem more visceral than Western film at least, with the repercussions more gritty and bloody.
There’s great support from a solid cast, including Kim Seong-oh (A Bittersweet Life, Fighter In The Wind), Lee Jong-pil (Milky Way Liberation Front) and Song Yeong-chang (The Foul King, Thirst, Blades Of Blood).
Sure, no one’s going to claim this is the best film ever made, but it is one hell of a great action film – let’s just hope a UK distributor agrees soon and gives this a UK release.