OH MY GOD. This movie was badass. Totally. Who would have thought my favorite movie of 2010 (granted I actually saw it in 2011) would have come from Korea? And that it would feature practically no hot babes? I unearthed this foreign gem unintentionally, while reading an article about the top-grossing Asian films of 2010. I noticed an oddly named film, The Man From Nowhere, and then read “revenge-themed crime thriller” in the description column. Memories of Old Boy sensually slid into my mind’s recesses, and I immediately hit up my local torrent supplier for a horribly translated copy, expecting an average to OK revenge romp through Seoul. I was pleasantly surprised.
Bin Won plays the protagonist Tae-Sik Cha. He runs a small-time pawn shop in a bad neighborhood. He speaks very little, but then again, being from nowhere, how much could he possibly have to say? His silent nature, combined with hair that covers half his face revealing only one eye, would make him a prime candidate to star in a JRPG video game. There is a distance between our protagonist and the rest of the world, yet there is little doubt in the viewer’s mind it is completely intentional. His neighbors think he is an ex-convict, and, more specifically, a sexual offender. He does nothing to dispel the rumors, which alienate him from everyone save a little girl named So-mi, played by Sae-ron Kim(don’t know why I bother writing the Korean names down. They mean nothing to me. I had to look this stuff up online, since I didn’t even know what anyone’s name was while watching the film.) So-mi is the daughter of a stripper, who may also be a drug addict, but is a horrible mother even sober. Over time, So-mi befriends Tae-sik, and a not-so-one-sided relationship develops between the two, though not one without complications, as Tae-sik’s rejection of the world forbears his affection for the girl.
But fear not, this isn’t Lost in Translation redux or anything. The expository act, though well-constructed, soon gives way to mayhem as So-mi’s mother gets caught up with some unsavory characters, who deal in drugs and, of all things, body organs. Within 40 minutes, So-mi and her mother are kidnapped, and our framed hero finds himself in the middle of a police headquarters. He seems OK with the idea of doing jail time for a crime he didn’t commit, but upon hearing that So-mi is missing, something changes. A spark lights up within our hero; a gleam can be seen in his eyes…and then people die. The rest of the film is a balls-to-the-wall action romp in which Tae-sik reveals himself to be one of all time’s badasses. It turns out the reason he is from “nowhere” is the government has classified all his records. I’ll say no more.
What follows is in my opinion a modern-day action classic. Cool fights, bad bad guys, good style and music. It’s all there. One thing I’ll say about Asian film in general, is Koreans seem to have a much better sense of “cool” than Chinese or Japanese filmmakers. It’s an understanding of style, manner, and tone that they then blend very well with completely un-Western (side of the world, not cowboy genre), unflinching violence and sexual situations. Makes a good combination.The antagonists are your garden variety gangster bosses. You have the borderline eccentric leader, the useless younger brother, the equally-quiet-as-the-protagonist-martial-arts-expert strongman, etc. But the bad guys aren’t completely without charm, and the strongman is even revealed to have some redeeming qualities. Well, only one, but…Anyway, the action scenes are awesome, and not over-prevalent, so they don’t overshadow the narrative at all. No strict martial arts in this one, unfortunately, it’s all sort of military CQC fighting, but it’s still fun. Not enough gun play though, in my opinion.
However, back to the film critique at hand, what separates The Man From Nowhere from many recent Hollywood explosionanzas (ahem, Expendables), is that this movie is not without a soul. Tae-sik is a merciless killer, but he is that way for a reason, and we find out. The movie also becomes much more engaging if the audience bothers to look deeper past the surface. We realize we are watching a man kill and destroy Korea’s gang population in order to save a girl to whom he’s spoken maybe twice his whole life, a girl who has no idea what he is doing, and with whom he has a relationship clearly defined only to himself. Not to mention, his own actions drive So-mi into even deeper danger, as the gangsters Tae-sik is chasing are just as merciless as he his. The events lead up to a completely predictable climax, but also a surprisingly touching ending, which brings to mind the last scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, of all things. The particulars of course differ, but the principle remains the same: some people are innocent; some people aren’t, and it is no small gap in between.
People of the world, go out and see this movie. Strongly recommended.