I wasn’t very excited about The Man From Nowhere at first, but the quiet popularity it earned gradually managed to sway me, so I sought it out and found some time to watch it. The revenge drama is easily Korea’s most popular export to the west, indeed the first Korean film I ever saw was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), a multi-faceted revenge flick that, at the relatively young age I saw it, was the most unremittingly bleak thing I had ever witnessed. At first I hated it, it upset me so, but I was unable to put it out of my head and a week later I felt compelled to watch it again and this time I was mesmerized by it. I would go so far as to say that it changed the way I viewed film from that point on. Its brutality and originality certainly had an impact on me but it was really the way it looked, its setting, and its style that left an impression. Its working class locations, its pale green hues, its mute protagonist, all these set the quiet scene for the most horrific and unfortunate of acts which contrasted against it like gunshots ringing out in the night. Many great revenge dramas have come out of Korea since (and many other great films also as I’ve been making a point of mentioning!): Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), A Bittersweet Life (2005), Princess Aurora (2005) among others. 2010 alone we saw the release of three: I Saw the Devil, Bedevilled, and The Man From Nowhere.
Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man From Nowhere is a very standard revenge drama which relies on three things: its style, its violence, and its star, Won Bin. I say standard because it really is. This revenge drama is unoriginal and, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is essentially a mash-up of Leon: The Professional (1994) and Taken (2008). Cha Tae-shik is a mysterious pawnbroker with a secret past, his neighbors’ daughter So-mi forms an attachment with him while her mother gets tangled with a drug and organ dealing ring, leading to her death and the daughter’s kidnapping. Tae-shik must then go after So-mi and wreaks havoc along the way.
Among its domestic peers, I think this film is closer to A Bittersweet Life (2005) than anything else. Its plotting is simple, its protagonist is very stoic, and its focus is on visuals more than anything else. The Man From Nowhere lags behind, as it is not as gripping. Its story, while straightforward, spins its wheels a little, and while very stylistic, it lacks the flair of its predecessors. That being said, it is well shot and the sound, while often a little too pronounced, is very effective.
However, despite its flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed The Man From Nowhere. It occurred to me that the motives for the revenge in this narrative were explained, but somewhat lazily so. There is one scene in which Tae-Shik is tailing an ‘ant’ and follows him to an arcade. He is so focused on the one child that he misses So-mi as she walks right past him. I understand that from a filmmaker’s perspective this is a trope that should get the audience going, a near miss. To me, it felt as though it emblematized the film as a whole. It could have ended right there, but our protagonist is more fueled by a desire for revenge (for what happened to his family), even if it is misdirected, than by an impulse to save his neighbor. He kills wounded foes when they could be left to go scuttle off and lick their wounds, he stabs people a lot more than is probably necessary. And to what end? To avenge, to exact revenge, or to sate an audience’s palpable need for brutal violence. Make no mistake, this film is astonishingly violent.
The last shot of the film struck me, as I’ve seen ones like it a number of times in Korean cinema: Tae-Shik cries when it’s all over; the Korean male with the scarred past can finally let everything go and express himself. A quiet, reserved, brutal, emotionless anti-hero is reduced to tears when his history finally catches up with him. A curious phenomenon that keeps cropping up in Korean cinema.
The Man From Nowhere will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater onThursday, July 7th at 6:15 PM. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.