As a way to wrap up my first full day of the Film Festival, The Man from Nowhere was a cracker. I have a definite fondness for Korean films (especially their amazing genre ones) and this action-thriller didn’t disappoint.
Cha Tae-Sik (played by Bin Won, who was also in the foolishly missed by me Mother) is a quiet pawnshop owner, withdrawn and given to brooding. There is tragedy in his past and he looks at the world through a curtain of oh-so roguishly tousled hair. His next door neighbour is a drugged up stripper and her daughter, Jeong So-mi. So-mi is a sweet girl, cruelly put-upon by her mother and other children, seen as scum and a burden but who has somehow managed to form some sort of bond with Tae-Sik. Her stripper mum has ripped off a drug deal and passes off the hidden drugs to Tae-Sik without his knowledge. The gangsters come looking and kidnap So-mi and her mother, while also entangling Tae-Sik into proceedings. They set him up as fall guy to take out a rival gang leader and harvest So-mi’s mother’s organs for the black-market. As Tae-Sik hunts the gangsters, the cops hunt him.
The performance by Sae-ron Kim as So-mi is wonderful and understated. This is a character that could have easily become annoying instead of endearing, but thanks to director Jeong-beom Lee and Sae-Ron Kim, So-mi is an adorable moppet with a life’s worth of pain behind her eyes. The scene where she reveals her “nickname” is just a little heartbreaking, and she plays it so innocently. Bin Won’s Cha Tae-Sik is no superhero, nor is he faultless. He’s just a hard bastard with a talent for violence and killing. His communication is purely physical and often violent. He’s been cold and cut-off for so long, and tries so hard not to care for So-mi, but the option of surrendering her, of giving up the chase, never enters his mind. Light relief is also offered by the main two cops – a classic comedy duo of the straight man and the fool – and the slightly, wonderfully strange Korean sense of humour.
The action scenes are well crafted, each one driving the narrative forward and/or revealing character information – which is how it should be really. Not everything is perfect though, with the now prevalent shaky-cam effect becoming an annoyance and a POV sequence in the final showdown really not working. I can see what he was going for, and it’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t play well in the execution.
For such a brutal, confident and propulsive film it’s a surprise this is only director Jeong-beom Lee’s second film. It would be easy to compare this film to the Bourne films and Besson’s Leon/The Professional but there is more to it than that. The Man from Nowhere is very much its own beast, going grander than most Hollywood actioners with big emotions, cold brutality and cracking, blood spurting action scenes.