At the time of showing, The Man From Nowhere
was yet to find a UK distributor, with the very real prospect that it will never be screened again in the UK. That would be a great shame as it's just the sort of blockbuster-with-a-soul that we're sorely lacking. A crime thriller with more than a passing resemblance to its forebears, it also manages to find its own voice and overcome the genre clichés that threaten to hamper it.
Last seen in Joon-ho Bong's wonderful Mother
, Bin Won stars as Cha Tae-sik, a mysterious pawn shop owner haunted by a tragic past. Now retired from a previous life as a top flight special agent, he strikes up a guarded relationship with his drug smuggling neighbour and her daughter, So-mi. When said neighbour makes an error of judgement that results in both her and So-mi being kidnapped, Tae-sik becomes embroiled in the fallout and is called back to action once more. Entering a murky world of drug trafficking, organ harvesting and child labour it's quickly apparent he's someone you really shouldn't cross as he mercilessly searches for the kidnapped pair.
In terms of narrative and plot there's little new to be seen here and the innumerable cinematic reference points, from Luc Besson/Pierre Morel's Taken
to Dante Lam's Beast Stalker
, come thick and fast. Director Jeong-beom Lee has, by his own admission, not come from a highly cine-literate background, but on the evidence of this he's clearly been exposed to at least his fair share of the crime flicks. Yet somehow, through a sizzling script full of droll, crowd-pleasing one liners and charismatic performances (particular from the increasingly versatile Bin Won) it comes together in a wonderfully entertaining blockbuster with both real heart and gripping action.
Clearly too handsome to have been a special agent, Bin Won is still every bit the movie star, commanding the screen and ultimately convincing. Tae-sik's reluctance to accept the budding friendship he's forged with the impossibly sweet Som-mi leads to some truly moving scenes and adds depth to the frequent moody glances that hint at his somehow damaged psyche. He blazes a revenge-filled trail through the movie, leading to the inevitably bloody climax. The blend of laugh-out-loud humour and the grim realities of organ harvesting may not seem perfect bedfellows to audiences raised on more Hollywood-styled blockbusters but, in the context of recent Korean cinema, it's familiar and typically uncompromising in approach. A film that's mainstream through intention, yet not muted by pandering to mainstream demands.
There are some issues, notably with a couple of uninspired set-pieces. The odd flourish of imaginative camera work - at one point we follow Tae-sik run down a corridor, smash through a window and fly down onto the street outside, without (apparent) cuts - never quite elicits the visual stimulation it should, or feels quite part of the same aesthetic as the rest of the film.
Minor quibbles aside, it's an exciting, fast paced action thriller that leaves a lump in your throat and a smile on your face. If only all blockbusters could be this entertaining. Please, someone pick this up for UK distribution and do us all a favour.The London Korean Film Festival runs until 23rd Nov - find out more here.
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