Over the last decade or so, Korean cinema has been producing cult movies at such a high level that it’s become nearly impossible not to get excited when the next big import hits American screens. Much like the work Hong Kong cinema was producing in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the flicks coming out of Korea right now are some of the best movies being made anywhere in the world. Films such as Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, as well as Kim Ji-woon’s eclectic selections of The Good, The Bad, The Weird, A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil, show exactly the type of fascinating and challenging work that’s been coming out of the country for the last decade.
With that, perhaps Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man from Nowhere isn’t the genre-busting masterpiece that some of these other entries can claim to be, but without a doubt it’s a top notch action-thriller and a prime example of the sort of work being done in Korean cinema right now. Like a no-limits version of Taken, the movie involves a child being kidnapped and a loner who has to come to her rescue, but where the Liam Neeson vehicle always feels kind of safe, as if its audience should be secure in the sense that good will eventually prevail, The Man from Nowhere‘s power comes from the feeling that anything is possible. Sure, the movie feeds you glimmers of hope amidst its permeating darkness while our hero works his way up the food-chain of the Korean underworld, but the feeling of dread that the picture is able to elicit is a very strong one, making the possibility for a grim finale an ever growing inevitability.
Our remaining hopes lie in the form of Won Bin as Cha Tae-sik, the owner of a small pawn shop frequented by the eventually kidnapped girl, So-mi (Kim Sae-ron). So-mi lives in the same building and hangs out with the reclusive store owner, mostly due to being neglected by her mother, an exotic dancer and drug addict. Though reluctant to spend so much time with the youngster, her persistence seems to impress him, and he eventually forms a weird bond with the girl. Similar to the odd connection between Natalie Portman and Jean Reno in Leon, the film hopes that you’ll buy into this friendship enough that it makes sense when Cha Tae-sik decides to put his life on the life for this young girl, and because of their onscreen chemistry that’s pretty much what happens.
The movie throws itself into high gear when a group of thugs come for So-mi’s mother, believing she’s taken a sample of heroin intended for a major upcoming drug deal. It’s in these scenes that that film establishes its level of brutality, with the mother being heinously tortured, and So-mi getting caught in the middle. When the mother and daughter are taken despite his best efforts, Cha Tae-sik begins his journey through hell to try and save them, with his dark past coming to light as police follow his personal path of destruction and murder.
For anyone that saw Won Bin in 2010 as the son in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, this performance as the vengeful Cha Tae-sik will be a revelation. Still soft spoken and shaggy for most of the movie, the actor no longer appears as a weakling; taking down foes in visceral shootouts and bloody hand to hand combat. An extended battle towards the end of the film has him fighting a room full of gangsters, each feeling his wrath by being overpowered in martial skill and then having a major artery cut open, writhing in pain as life retreats from their broken bodies. Though he possesses pop star good looks, Won Bin ends up looking the part, deftly crafting a character that hides a lot of pain only to unleash it once this scenario arises.
Of course, a movie like this is usually only as good as its villains, and if there’s an area where The Man from Nowhere excels at, it’s definitely in its depiction of evil. Director Lee Jeong-beom uses subtle queues from anime and spaghetti westerns when forming his band of villains, an upcoming gang trying to take over the local drug trade, who even manage to deal in human slavery and black market organs just to make them more despicable. Instead of just being faceless heavies, each person has a distinct caricature they’re playing off of, such as the ring leader, a giant, an effeminate psycho, a perverse loud mouth, and most importantly, the silent, but very deadly honor-bound assassin with a specialized weapon (in this case, a curved knife). By giving them such distinct personalities, the film-makers here have produced much more memorable bad guys then your stock action film is able to, strengthening the impact of their battles with Cha Tae-sik.
Those battles are also expertly crafted, with editing never getting in the way of the film’s brutal martial arts and Lee Jeong-beom showing some terrific visual flourishes along the way; especially a sequence where the camera follows Tae-sik as he jumps out a window to get ahead of some criminals. The director also knows when to not show action, letting us see a window get broken or the aftermath of a slaughter instead, giving the fights that are in the picture that much more importance. Especially in the film’s final moments, the film maker seems to really know what he’s doing, ratcheting up the violence and tension in a way that harkens back to the heydays of John Woo and Ringo Lam, while still making this movie all his own.
The Man from Nowhere is a rock solid actionfest that gives you a great idea of the quality of movies being made in Korea right now. Tense, shocking, and unwilling to pull any punches, this film is a super charged thriller that builds and builds right up to its bullet-spraying, blade-slashing finale. While director Lee Jeong-beom might not have the international recognition of Park Chan-wook or Kim Ji-woon, if this film is a jumping off point to what he has in store for us, his voice is a terrific addition to what is currently an amazing chorus of film makers working Asian cult cinema at the moment.
The Man from the Nowhere has a pretty terrific high-def print on this blu-ray, sporting a sharp picture with tremendous black levels. The clarity of the transfer is quite nice with very little artifacting as well. The sound is also pretty tremendous, emphasizing every punch, kick, and broken window to full effect.
The Making Of The Man from Nowhere – This is a sort of “fly on the wall” featurette that shows a lot of behind the scenes footage of the film being made. This goes about 17 minutes or so.
Highlights – I kind of wish more Bu-rays and DVDs had this feature, which just shows key action bits from the movie.
Curious about Korean movies and want a good introductory example? Looking for an awesome revenge/action flick? Then The Man from Nowhere is for you. With terrific lead acting, plenty of bloody excitement and an amazing final act, this film is tremendous entertainment with a gorgeous blu-ray to boot. Highly recommended.
Well Go USA presents The Man from Nowhere. Directed by: Lee Jeong-beom. Starring: Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron. Written by: Lee Jeong-beom. Running time 119 minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: March 8, 2011.
Tags: I Saw the Devil, Kim Ji-Woon, Korean cinema, Lady Vengeance, Lee Jeong-beom, mother, Oldboy, park chan, R0bTrain's BADASS Cinema, R0BTRAIN’s Bad Ass Cinema, The Good The Bad The Weird, The Host, The Man from Nowhere, won bin