The Man From Nowhere (Korean title: Ajeossi) directed by Lee Jeong-boom. With Won Bin, Kim Sun-oh, Kim Hee-won and Kim Sae-ron. 2010.
There are three things I can only do when my better half is away from the house or asleep. One of them is work on my novel. One of them I can’t talk about. And one of them is watch foreign language action movies. Yesterday, Kyle was away for the whole day. I tackled a knotty segment of the novel, did a bit of the thing I won’t talk about, and then there was only thing left: watch the bloodiest damn foreign movie I could find.
Lee Jeong-boom’s The Man From Nowhere was South Korea’s biggest hit of 2010, due at least in part to the draw of its star, heartthrob Won Bin. Violence-level wise, It has a little bit in common with Oldboy, Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film that introduced the world to the Korean flavor of Asian arterial-spray flicks. It’s not quite the wall-to-wall killfest that that earlier film was, but when Man From Nowhere does cut loose, particularly in the stabby conclusion, it makes like DeGrassi and goes there. Plotwise, it’s a little bit Taxi Driver, a little bit The Professional and a little bit Taken. Won Bin stars as Ta Chae-sik, a pawn-broker in a rundown Seoul slum whose unusual knack for killing comes to the fore when a young girl he has befriended is threatened. Though all he wants to do is protect the little girl, he’s quickly dragged into a mob war, and draws the attention of a team of narcotics detectives. Along the way, we learn that Chae-sik has what Liam Neeson once called “a very special set of skills” — skills with knives, skills with hammers, skills with handguns, skills with martial arts, and skills with random nearby blunt objects — which are the result of his training with the Korean military, where he was a member of a secret spec ops team.
So basically, the mob picked the wrong guy’s surrogate daughter to kidnap. The main bad guys are brothers Man-seok and Jong-seok, who represent the decadent new generation of gangsters, the kind who like to get high on their own supply and dabble in a little child-trafficking alongside the old standbys of drug-running and illegal gambling. They’re played as goofy caricatures by Kim Hee-won and Kim Song-oh; their broad antics do seem to play against the more artistic impulses on display here, but they certainly provide welcome moments of levity. In a particularly comic scene, Man-seok prematurely ends one of Jong-seok’s torture sessions with a quick bullet to the hostage’s head, so that the two can eat their take out before it gets cold; as they sit down to plot revenge over noodles, their goons are seen cleaning up the body in the background. The pair are depicted as completely depraved and proud of it, so watching Won Bin take them down (oh yeah, spoiler, he wins) is deliciously satisfying.
A huge amount of screen time is spent on Won Bin’s brooding and bonding with the young actress Kim Sae-ron. Between those long, quiet shots, the grimy hyper-violence of the fight scenes, the physical comedy of the gangster brothers, and the b-plot of the drug cops trying to piece together Chae-sik’s identity, The Man From Nowhere sometimes feels like a film that’s trying to be too many things at once. If Lee Jeong-boom had cut out twenty or thirty minutes of extraneous material and focused the movie more on the pure action elements, he could have had a tight genre classic on his hands. As it stands, the movie is a bit bloated and doesn’t achieve the heights of the films it imitates. Still, it’s a solid entry in the annals of the Korean revenge drama, and any movie that features both a game of keepaway with a pair of human eyeballs and a man getting dragon-kicked out of a wheelchair can’t be all bad, right?
The Man From Nowhere is available on to stream on Netflix.