South Korea may just be the most exciting place on the planet these days when it comes to stylish and violent thrillers filled with action, melodrama, and Asian people. By the time most of them hit our shores there’s a fairly good idea as to their quality and what can be expected, but once in a rare while a movie arrives that’s a complete unknown. Seems only fitting that it happened most recently with a new film called The Man From Nowhere. It’s The Professional meets Taken, and yes, it’s almost as awesome as that mash-up makes it sound.
Tae-sik Cha (Bin Won) leads a simple and quiet life as a pawn shop broker, and while he tries to keep everyone around him at a distance the persistence of one young girl eventually wears him down and he welcomes her into his life. Begrudgingly. So-mi (Sae-ron Kim) lives with a drug addled mother who alternates between verbally abusing and ignoring her daughter completely, so instead of suffering in silence So-mi visits Tae-sik daily and an odd but effective friendship develops between the two. A past act of greed on behalf of So-mi’s mother leads some gangsters to come calling, and they take the woman and child before foolishly confronting the pawnbroker too. If only they knew about his dark and violent past that left him very well-trained in the fine art of combat and pain infliction. If only they knew how goddamn good he was with a knife…
The story doesn’t hold any big surprises, but the sheer force of the characters and action drives it forward with style. Tae-sik’s first bits of action occur off-screen, and much like the bad guys and cops looking for him we’re simply shown the aftermath and told what he did. It builds the character’s persona so that when we finally see him act we’re ready to be impressed. And we’re not disappointed.
Won scraps hand to hand with several baddies and while he’s no Donnie Yen he proves quite capable. He was last seen on these shores as the mentally slow young man arrested for murder in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, and his role here couldn’t be any more different. It’s even further from the roles he’s best known for that usually found him a happy and pleasant young man. He embraces his inner badness with a kinetic verve and has a bright future playing ass kickers who rarely smile. And while Kim doesn’t get to fight she is an incredibly solid and emotional little actress.
Tae-sik is brutal, fast, and determined, and once the chain of events set him in motion he becomes a whirling dervish of flesh-cutting fury. I probably used that term incorrectly there, but so be it. The final string of fights in the film include a knife fight that makes the one in Michael Jackson’s Beat It video look like child’s play. It should go down as one of the best on film thanks to some incredible choreography, copious amount of blood, and sheer brutality.
This being a Korean film it does run a little too long and could easily lose about ten minutes or so of fat. And part of that fat is a handful of overly melodramatic scenes milked for audience tears . But it’s hard to stay angry with director Lee Jeong-beom because he delivers so well in just about every other way.
This is a sweet ass flick, and even with a couple minor (and typically Korean) issues it succeeds thanks to two strong lead performances, some truly impressive and crowd-pleasing scenes, and a finale that features the best cinematic knife fight to hit screens in years. Lee has made a beautiful genre flick that keeps the necessary and familiar elements but ramps up the style and utter coolness to eleven. Or to열한 (yeolhan) for you native speakers.