Korean writer director Lee Jeong Beom follows up his 2006 quirky gangster drama “Cruel Winter Blues” with the hard hitting noir action thriller “The Man from Nowhere”, headlined by top Korean star Won Bin (“Tae Guk Gi”, “Mother”) as a man on a mission to save a young girl from evil mobsters. Although not exactly a prolific film maker, Lee certainly caught the attention with his finely crafted and offbeat debut, and here he again adds something different to what might sound like a pretty formulaic affair, with a sharp script that emphasises character along with action. The film was not only a huge hit at the box office, ranking as the top Korean film of 2010, with over 6 million admissions, but also with critics, winning a slew of prizes at the at the Blue Dragon, Daejong, and Korean Film Awards, including several for Won Bin. The film now arrives on region 2 DVD via eOne.
The actor takes on the titular role as Tae Sik, a mysterious man who moves into a rundown neighbourhood and opens up a pawn shop, pointedly keeping himself to himself and ignoring everyone, apart from a maltreated young girl called So Mi (Kim Sae Ron). His efforts to lead a quiet life are soon thwarted when So Mi’s addict mother leaves a camera bag in his shop that just happens to be full of drugs. Organ trafficking gangsters show up looking for their property, tearing his place apart and kidnapping the poor girl and her mother, holding them to ransom. Tae Sik is forced to return to the violent ways of his murky past, cutting a swathe through his enemies in a single minded quest to rescue his young friend before time runs out.
Although its plot is pretty straightforward, “The Man from Nowhere” is a rich and surprisingly human piece of action cinema. Lee Jeong Beom’s script is full of small but telling details that bring his characters to life, mixing dark humour and pathos to engaging and frequently poignant effect. In this regard the film recalls Kim Jee Woon’s classic “A Bittersweet Life”, slowly working its way under the viewer’s skin in subtle fashion before landing a series of powerful emotional punches. Won Bin is on impeccable form in a career best role, adding real humanity to his flawed though basically likeable protagonist, showing a commanding screen presence and real star charisma. Whilst his decision to try and rescue So Mi does basically follow the usual redemptive character arc, Lee still manages to turn it into a wholly compelling and sympathetic journey, which makes the film all the more gripping as he notches up the intensity. What really helps the film to stand out from the crowd is the fact that despite its subject matter and various grim twists, it’s an essentially good hearted affair, and despite flirting with fashionable nihilism, it comes with an oddly warm and upbeat glow.
Lee’s direction is tight and perfectly judged, with an approach that is stylised and explosive, yet at the same time intimate and character driven, with the film’s quiet moments being every bit as effective as its wild ones, if not more so. Though flashier than the more measured “Cruel Winter Blues” and vaguely similar in feel to the works of Chan Park Wook, he still manages to carve out his own style, mixing grit and gloss in a way that keeps the film grounded, tense and believable. This combines wonderfully with some superbly choreographed and well timed CGI free action scenes that keep the film rattling along at a near breathless pace for the last hour or so, and if anything the running time feels somewhat short. These include old school gun battles, fights and chase scenes, though the real highlight is a last act knife fight, which stands as one of the most ferocious in recent memory. The action is all the better for never being gratuitous, and though the film is frequently bloody and shocking, this never undermines its central drama.
“The Man from Nowhere” is one of those rare occasions when the biggest grossing film of the year is also one of the very best of the year. Thrilling, brutal and unexpectedly moving, it confirms exactly why Won Bin is one of the most popular actors in Korean cinema, and will hopefully propel director Lee Jeong Beom to the very top of the profession.
Jeong-beom Lee (director) / Jeong-beom Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Bin Won … Tae-Sik Cha
Sae-ron Kim … So-Mi Jeong
Hyo-seo Kim … Hyo-Jeong