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Tip of The Scalpel: Why ‘The Man From Nowhere’ Remains at The Bleeding Edge Thirteen Years Later

Author’s Note: This essay contains minor spoilers for The Man From Nowhere.

In The Man From Nowhere, Won Ban plays Cha Tae-sik, a pawnbroker who has befriended Jeong So-mi, a young girl who lives in his building. When the girl’s mother is caught trying to poach the heroin shipment delivered at the club she works at by two gangsters, they try to sell the girl to the organ traffic trade and frame Cha Tae-sik for a gangland hit to tie up the loose ends. What they don’t know is that Cha used to run special operations for Korean Intelligence and he goes out for blood to get the girl back.

The film is almost fifteen years old, and remains one of the most urgent, visceral, and satisfying action-thrillers in world cinema to this day. It’s worth asking ourselves “Why?”: Why is this particular Korean action film which came out amidst a sea of genre-bending, relentlessly cool, Asian thrillers in the last twenty years still the one that gets pride of place in a crowded field? Why does this film still get awe-struck YouTube reaction videos and shout outs from the creators of John Wick and even the threat of the dreaded American remake hanging over its head?

The first and best reason is that it was the product of a particular time and place: Korean cinema was producing strong action and horror films on an annual basis largely replacing Hong Kong as the Southeast Asian nation of choice for genre cinema. Furthermore it came out at roughly the same time as Indonesian legend The Raid and Donnie Yen’s novel attempt to integrate modern martial arts concepts into action films, Flashpoint. There were rumors of an action masterpiece coming from Vietnam (which ended up being the banned film Chinatown), and Tony Jaa was finishing up his Ong Bak trilogy. As someone who was buying films every week in this period it felt like there was a great action film arms race going on with each nation trying to outdo the others to produce the most exciting genre cinema.

Director Lee Jeong-beom had enjoyed a minor domestic success with 2006’s Cruel Winter Blues, a small-scale revenge story about petty crooks and four years later he was given a much larger canvas to realize his pulp sensibilities on. The Man From Nowhere, at the time of its release, seemed to signal the arrival of a bold new talent in action cinema but after thirteen years Lee has only produced two follow ups: 2014’s No Tears for the Dead which was derivative of the works of John Woo to the point of pastiche, and 2017’s Jo Pil-ho: The Dawning Rage which is bloated, laborious to sit through and overly melancholy.

So you have an inconsistent writer-director, a mercurial star in Won Bin (who has not been on screen since this film), and a moment in time where all the best action talent in the world were in direct competition with one another and on one magical film everything just clicked into place. No one was conscious of how special the film was going to be, just as no one working on Casablanca or Singin’ in the Rain knew that this particular film was going to be the one to define a moment in time and space in filmmaking and stand out from the assembly line of pictures they were making at the time.

So we’ve established the conditions, but the question remains: “Why this film?

The film has three points going for it: a masterfully constructed screenplay which gradually brings the emotional damage of its characters into focus without feeling unduly manipulative; committed performances from all the major players that always feel at the edge of going over the top, but somehow never do; and finally, action sequences staged with equal part care and bravado that build to a finale where real catharsis is achieved, and so the action is not at odds with the emotional heft of the story, but in service to it.

First, the script: Korean thrillers of that period had, as previously alluded to, a genre-bent quality to them that enlivened tired tropes by bouncing them off others in strange combinations. For examples of this, consider the thrilling home invasion sequence in the second act of the otherwise unrelentingly grim I Saw the Devil which makes one feel for a moment like they’re watching Jack Bauer take on the family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre or how the suffocating Hitchcockian suspense of A Hard Day gradually shifts into something from Mickey Spillane during its excellent cat-and-mouse conclusion.

The Man From Nowhere blends influences as disparate as Leon, Taken, Election, and the Cheng Cheh classic Vengeance. It is an action film for aficionados of the genre and therefore knows all sorts of ways to pleasantly surprise and even shock its audience with deft wit and casual sadism. Very few scripts can give us fist pounding moments like when Won Bin’s Cha Tae-sik effortlessly disarms a thug with the wallet he was trying to steal, and we see him deal with an enormous leg breaker with a simple outside shot of the man’s back crashing through the window and into the steel bars outside it, but it’s a very rare script indeed that can match those moments with horrific reveals like an organ harvested corpse in a trunk and not have the viewer feel tonal whiplash.

The rising action of the film is greatly complimented by the emotionally committed performances of the cast. The characters continually surprise and delight even during beats of the film when the plot feels particularly indebted to another source. Kim Sung-oh’s K-Pop influenced gangster who makes his first appearance torturing a mother with a hair dryer in front of her daughter but who is gradually revealed to be impulsive and insecure as the film goes on. His brother played by Kim Hee-won (no relation between the actors) who displays nothing but a businessman’s indifference to human suffering and their Thai hitman, who first becomes interested in our hero when he sees that he doesn’t flinch at gunfire and ends up redeeming himself after death.

All of these orbit around the two central performances, Won Ban’s haunted former spy and current pawn shop ghost and the young girl, played by Kim Sae-ron, whose predicament brings him back to life for the main action of the film. Child-in-jeopardy films are, by their nature, manipulative but The Man From Nowhere takes pains to balance the sentimentality and Kim Sae-Ron’s unusually gifted child performance, which never becomes shrill and is often heart-breaking keep the saccharine elements from ever putting the film into diabetic shock.

Of course, the best aspect is how all this emotional investment, story construction, and clever filmmaking informs the action. One aspect of the film that I especially enjoyed in this most recent rewatch was how many smaller action beats were implied rather than shown in the first two acts to keep the main character’s mystique intact and build momentum for the final confrontation, and it is effective.

When Won Ban finally loses it at the final showdown it’s one of the greatest final action sequences ever, full stop. A masterpiece of gunplay, knife fighting, and hand to hand tactical combat set against a sweeping score that feels both shocking and inevitable. It’s made all the more powerful because, unlike the John Wick films that always maintain their ironic distance, Won Bin is in tears as he’s dismantling the Triad. The emotion has overwhelmed him, and he must fight.

Highest recommendation. A true classic of modern action cinema.

The Man From Nowhere is available now on DVD, Blu-ray
and Digital HD and arrives on 4K UHD Blu-ray on December 12.

 

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