Fantastic Fest 2010: THE MAN FROM NOWHERE Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Fantastic Fest 2010: THE MAN FROM NOWHERE Review
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.
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More about The Man From Nowhere

Ard VijnSeptember 24, 2010 8:09 AM

Sounds good! Sorry for harping on a detail, but how does the final knife-fight compare to, say, the alleyway-fight in "SPL"?

drynwhylSeptember 24, 2010 10:01 AM

Sounds really good. Makes me even more anxious now. It's interesting you mention A Bittersweet Life (one of my all time favs), because the after taste and feeling I got after watching all trailers and media snippets of Ajusshi were similar to what I went through watching ABL.
Oh, tears of frightened joy, I seriously can't wait to see it ;)

TorySeptember 24, 2010 11:57 AM

I was already excited to see this, but that fifth paragraph has me completely sold.

Todd BrownSeptember 24, 2010 12:29 PM

They're very, very different. The SPL alley fight - as realistic as it is - is still primarily a showcase between a pair of very skilled martial artists. The Man From Nowhere fight is a street brawl, more compact and to the point and ruthless. I don't want to say too much but the end of the fight here goes somewhere that I've never seen before and is so brutally effective that I'm a bit shocked I haven't.

All of this to say, though, it's not as good as Bittersweet Life. Best since but not quite on that level. Don't expect the second coming of Christ but a really solid entry into the genre and you'll go away pretty happy, I think.

J HurtadoSeptember 24, 2010 12:56 PM

"The Man From Nowhere fight is a street brawl, more compact and to the point and ruthless"

Sounds typical of Korean fight choreography. This is what I like about their action movies. While the fights in City of Violence can feel a bit ridiculous and protracted, they are nothing if not brutal.

A.K.S.September 28, 2010 3:27 PM

Hey Josh, I just wanted to reply to your comment.
'City Of Violence' is one of my all-time favourite movies that I have watched & own, for many reasons.
From what I understood after watching the movie and all special features, the fight scenes were supposed to be that way, 'ridiculous and protracted'. Especially the final four fight; the sentimental music and the slow motion are supposed to make it seem like the audience are in the fight with the heroes in an epic, painful battle.

Also, even the classic Oldboy had that hammer fight sequence which was a bit long as well, but the length made the fight scene more painful as you empathized with the hero.

Anyways, just felt like pointing that out, I hope you didn't mind.

And yes, I want to watch 'The man form nowhere' as well, will do so later this week.

A.K.S.September 28, 2010 3:40 PM

I've read many great reviews from this website, but mostly of films I have seen and for some reason, never of a film I am about to see.
This review of 'The Man From Nowhere' however, is the opposite as I have yet to see the movie.

This is a well-written review by Todd Brown. I do have a small point to make, I have heard about 'A Bittersweet Life' for years but have yet to see it-which I will very soon! However, is it fair to compare these two movies? Besides that they're from Korea and are action movies, when there are so many great action movies over the years why the comparison of this particular film to 'The Man From Nowhere', just wondering?

The annual film festival of in my city is going to start later this week and 'The Man From Nowhere' is going to be playing. When I read the synopsis for it and watched the trailer online, I knew this movie would be big and I can't wait to watch it.


Todd BrownSeptember 28, 2010 4:12 PM

I compared them because they're both part of a very specific subgenre of action film - the heroic bloodshed film. John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled are the prime examples of this type of story. To compare it to something like City of Violence (also Korean and action) would be apples and oranges, I think, as the rules are different in that sort of film but ABS and MFN are the same basic type of picture.

A.K.S.December 14, 2010 5:36 PM

Hey Todd, I realize this is quite a few months after but I forgot posting those 2 earlier comments about 'The Man Form Nowhere' on

Yes, your reply does make sense; especially now that I have seen both 'A Bittersweet Life' and 'The Man From Nowhere' not just once, but twice.

Even though it is quite hard to do as both are such exceptional films, I would have to say The Man From Nowhere' is the better film for me at least overall.
The scope of the story is broader and rather than just focusing solely on the characters lives', it also talks about some important issues in society. Also, the background score/music is a bit better too.

Finally, I really wish they can make a North American release of this movie as it should be watched by every action fan.