Written and Directed by Lee Jeong-beom
Starring Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron, Kim Hee-won, Kim Tae-hoon, Thanayong Wongtrakul, Hong So-hee
Whatever happened to Won Bin? He rose like a meteor from 2009’s Mother and then this masterpiece, The Man from Nowhere. Then he never acted in front of a camera again. Of course I never heard about him until seeing the former earlier this year. It is hard not to notice the range, the beauty and the solemn heroism displayed in just these two films. If he’d stayed on course, everyone would know his name by now. Instead he stopped acting, met a girl, got married and started a family. Cinema’s loss is his gain.
The story behind The Man from Nowhere will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen Leon: The Professional. Girl in trouble is rescued by loner with a dark past and an indelible set of skills. The girl in this case is So-mi (Sae-ron), whose mother is a drug addicted exotic dancer who gets caught up in a battle between drug dealing organizations. Her friendship with a solemn pawnshop owner, Tae-sik (Won) is the only thing that brings her back from the brink.
This film, written and directed with a mixture of somber vitality by Jeong-beom, is a confident update that ramps up the intensity and keeps the typical South Korean cheesiness in check. There are some extremely dark passages that mess with the spirit longing for closure in the afterlife. The other subplots include harsh reminders of organ harvesting and child trafficking. If you are squeamish at the thought of these, you may want to steer clear.
Through it all, Won Bin plays the part of hero with a solid jaw and no hint of being in on the joke. His elegant is matched with a ferocity that very slowly develops through the events of the film.
That Jeong-beom has such confidence in his lead gives the film its biggest strength. Early on we’re given the smallest demonstration of his skill with the simple move of using his wallet to remove the knife from someone who is threatening him. That person has a huge henchman accompanying him. Instead of seeing the obligatory fight, we’re shown the evidence of the outcome from far down in the street below. The director takes his time from here, ever so slowly adding layers of skill to Tae-sik until the climax, when he explodes like a supernova.
Because of this, the last act plays like the perfect crescendo to a symphony of violence, death and redemption. This includes two scenes that take place in the same room. In one scene, the bad guys take it to one of their victims. Later, we see the our hero impossibly outnumbered by his nemeses as the hammer is about to fall.
This is a film that relies on equal parts style and substance. It mines the deepest parts of the human soul. It’s such a dark film, it’s easy to understand why its star may have been put off working at its conclusion. I have no idea if this is the cause, but I can’t rule it out. As for the writer and director, I guess there is one more name to add to the list of creatives whose work will need to be tracked. This is becoming a habit for South Korea.
Another strength of the film is the evolution of the bad guys. It’s not every film where the main bad guy looks like a tool in the first scene and then slowly grows into a menace by the end, until he seems inconceivably awful. The number two guy (Wongtrakul) is unforgettable, for his cruelty one moment and his surprising demonstration in the next. It’s amazing what a band-aid can do to a person.
This film is remarkable. The action scenes are serious, intense and exceptionally filmed. The sequencing and cinematography are peerless. This film is worthy of all the awards it received. There are not enough words in any language to express how incredibly moving and draining its portrayal is for the viewer.
If you see only one more action film, let this be it.
(***** out of *****)