Oh, you’ve seen this movie before, my friend. It’s Taken. It’s Man on Fire. It’s every movie ever made wherein a super-tough but fundamentally sensitive man with a mysterious, deadly and usually governmental past has to go on a bloody rampage to rescue a child — his own or one somehow close to him. The Man from Nowhere is that hoariest of tales, the one about the redemptive power of genuine affection as only children are able to bestow it and what happens when thugs suddenly take said children away. Writer-director Lee Jeong-beom served notice with Cruel Winter Blues that he was bucking for the position of Korea’s premiere urban warfare director. He’s making a pretty good case for himself. In only his second film he’s set the bar pretty high in producing a film that almost (but not quite) rivals Korean touchstone A Bittersweet Life and some of Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo’s best work.
In Nowhere, one-time matinee idol Won Bin (on track for a Lee Byung-hun type career if he’s smart) is Tae-sik, a reclusive young man who lives above the pawnshop he runs. His neighbours are junkie thief Hyo-jeong (Kim Hyo-seo) and her daughter So-mi (Kim Sae-ron) and the neglected and lonely little girl pesters Tae-sik into becoming her friend. He tries for gruff and uninterested, but we all know he harbours a certain fondness for her. They play odd games and share meals, and their relationship thankfully never teeters into creepy. Just kind of sad. Guess what happens? Go ahead, I’ll wait … That’s right. Drug dealing brothers Man-seok (Kim Hee-won) and Jong-seok (Kim Seong-oh) kidnap both and force Tae-sik into violent action to save So-mi when Hyo-jeong turns up dead. If you’ve read Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing, this happens much the same way that book’s characters gets dragged into his own nightmare: the wrong goods go to the wrong apartment.
Clearly steeped in the best traditions of Woo, Lee has a fantastic eye for dramatic visuals and the grim, steel grey urban nightscape that hides criminals so well (he gets a lot of help from DOP Lee Tae-yun). Lee has no time for the vagaries of male bonding or romance, however. He wants to get to the action. Character shading? Total waste of time. Tae-sik, So-mi, and even a cop working a related case, Detective Kim (Kim Tae-hun), are good. Everyone else is bad. How bad? The drug dealers go beyond reprehensible: not only are they trafficking drugs and kidnapping crack whores and their kids, they’re hedonists that worry more about their douchebag Dolce & Gabbana outfits than their lackeys and are using orphans as chattel for an organ donation scam among other things! How’s that for bad?
Nowhere is a slow build (again with the epic running times, Korea?) and has a tone that suggests violence is always simmering just below the surface. Won pulls it off within his character with surprising grace and he’s rarely less than convincing. Lee’s use of sound — or lack of it — also goes a long way to set the tone as does the fact So-mi isn’t an annoying imperilled juvenile (yeah, yeah, petty complaint but a valid one). For that credit must be given to Kim, who also turned in an astounding performance in the 2009 art film A Brand New Life (find it). Taken with the utter vileness of the heavies, we’re expecting Tae-sik to lose his shit at some point but are still surprised by the sudden explosion of highly skilled violence when it happens, beginning with a shocking close-quarters knife fight.
And oh my. What an unholy unleashing of badassery it is. The revenge thriller has morphed into its own sub-genre in Korean cinema in the years since Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance was released, and some of that tunnel-visioned nastiness is on display here. Tae-sik’s rampage through Seoul’s underworld gets more and more outrageous — and creative — each passing minute, and culminates in a silent fight to the death such as I have rarely witnessed in cinema. The action choreography (by Park Jeong-ryul) is superb, and though the conclusion is never really in doubt, the entire sequence manages to maintain a level of tension no often achieved in crime dramas. Boredom isn’t an option for Lee. Is The Man from Nowhere a perfect film? No, nor is it narratively innovative. But as we all know, put a truly novel spin on even the oldest of stories and you win a lot of points — and Lee almost hit the jackpot.