With 2006 feature Cruel Winter Blues director Lee Jeong-Beom made his pitch to be considered Korea's answer to Takeshi Kitano, blending gangster tropes with a meditative arthouse style. With 2010 blockbuster The Man From Nowhere Lee serves notice that he's got some John Woo in him, too, and though only two films into his career Lee has clearly established himself as one of the leaders of Korea's young generation.
Won Bin - you know him from Tae Guk Gi and Mother - stars as Cha Tae-Sik, a reclusive man with a dark past, a man who spends his days closeted away in a dingy apartment behind the pawn shop he runs, generally avoiding any contact with humanity. The one intrusion - one he welcomes, albeit gruffly - is the young girl who lives upstairs, the neglected daughter of a drug addict who clearly sees the taciturn pawn broker as a kindred spirit thanks to their shared outsider status.
The pair are an unlikely duo but a genuine one. They share meals. The girl stays in Cha's apartment when her mother is strung out. Cha allows her to paint his nails. But just as it seems that Cha's defenses are about to fall, the unthinkable happens. The girl's mother has foolishly gotten involved in a plan to rob a local dealer, a dealer who quickly tracks his stolen goods back to her and to Cha's pawnshop. Mother and daughter are kidnapped, mother killed, and it is up to an increasingly frantic and driven Cha to save the young girl.
Important point: A major part of Cha's hidden history are the years spent working as an assassin for the Korean secret service. This is not a man you want to make angry. And he is very angry indeed.
Laced with black humor and some truly impressive action sequences, The Man From Nowhere is a quietly building slow burn of a film, one that arrives at a point of bleak ultraviolence so subtly that you hardly realize you've gotten there at all until the knives and guns come out and the blood sprays across the screen and you're left thinking, "Oh, of course. That makes perfect sense." Writer-director Lee is clearly a student of the heroic bloodshed film and though his picture is arguably a touch longer than it needs to be with a script more convoluted than it needs to be and with certain elements that are a touch overly familiar, his command of character and genre conventions make this the best, most satisfying entry in the genre from any nation since A Bittersweet Life.
Anchoring the entire picture on all levels is the charismatic Won Bin, an actor who started as a soap opera heart throb and who has now proven himself as both a character actor of depth and a potent action hero. Korea has long been in need of a handsome leading man with range beyond Lee Byun-hyung and in Won Bin they have him. Despite playing with minimal dialogue, Won's presence smolders on the screen in quiet moments and is one hundred percent believable in the action set pieces, the finale knife fight in particular - a sequence that plays with only ambient sound so you can hear the fighters grunt and strain against one another - standing as one of the best conceived and executed action moments of the year.
Though not without its flaws - beyond those already mentioned, Lee sometimes struggles with camera placement and editing to maximize the impact of his action - The Man From Nowhere is one of those rare things: A blockbuster that became one because it deserves to be.
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here
to report it, or see our DMCA policy