South Korea’s mega-popular THE MAN FROM NOWHERE was successful for very good reasons, so many that there’s no way I could touch upon all of them in a single review. Suffice it to say that it’s an action picture whose formula is broad enough to appeal to men (once the action starts, there’s never a dull moment), women (there’s a strong through-line about caring for society’s lost children), male teens (who wouldn’t want to be as coolly quiet as the film’s lead), and female ‘tweens’ (I’ve been assured by ladies that star Bin Won is very ‘easy on the eyes’). If that winning combination isn’t enough, then add to the mix the social messages and perhaps a metaphor on “random acts of kindness” and it’s no wonder that the film was a huge hit overseas.
Bin Won stars as Tae-sik Cha, who, quite literally, is the film’s “man from nowhere.” As our story opens, he’s seen doing his best to blend into the landscape, buying some sausage to eat in his small apartment. He’s treated like anyone on the street who has his slightly disheveled appearance: mostly ignored but slightly suspect due to his unkempt guise. Arriving back home where he runs a pawnshop shop out of his apartment in a quiet, rundown tenement building (the place looks much like he does), he meets the young So-mi hiding in the darkness at the bottom of the stairs. We soon learn that they’re begrudging friends (of sorts), with Cha not taking any responsibility for the young girl (whose mother has essentially abandoned her to a life on the streets) but feeling tied to her more as the only responsible adult in her life.
But So-mi’s mother is guilty of more than being a bad mother. In an attempt to make a big score selling drugs, she’s stolen a small supply from the wrong people; and, when they show up looking for the stash, they’re more than happy to take So-mi off the woman’s hands because there’s a big demand for black market body parts. Who would miss one more deserted child?
The mob never counted on Tae-sik Cha.
Truth be told, Cha is a former government assassin, living a life of self-imposed exile after seeing his wife killed by one of his former enemies. Now that he genuinely has nothing to lose, Cha realizes the only tether keeping him in this world is the young So-mi, so he makes it his personal mission to get her back alive no matter the cost.
The story doesn’t stop there, and the plot is developed on several layers. There are competing mobs vying for control of the city’s drugs and prostitutes, as well as the supply of human body parts, and, of course, the police can’t be far behind. What unfolds is an incredible tale of one man’s spirit sinking to the depths of despair and rising to the challenge when he realizes that no one else – not the government, not the police, not anyone – is willing to do what’s absolutely necessary to bring down the thugs who snatched So-mi away from her sad life.
There’s action a’plenty, and, in several daring twists of direction, not all of it takes place on scene. In fact, Cha’s opening salvo against one of the heavies who shows up looking for the stolen drugs doesn’t even appear on screen; cleverly, we’re only shown a window shattering from outside, and when the camera is back on Cha’s apartment, the heavy is out cold on his kitchen floor. Director Jeong-beom Lee clearly knows when to “play the action” and when to pull it back, providing the audience with sufficiently masterful hints as to what happened where we couldn’t see. The film remains taut throughout, right up until what is, arguably, one of the most incredible knife fights you’ll see on film EVER. I’m not talking samurai swords. I’m not talking fencing. I’m talking down-n-dirty knife fights. Watch closely because you won’t forget this choreography any time soon.
Still, what surprised me most about THE MAN FROM NOWHERE isn’t so much its penchant for violence, for which there’s plenty but decidedly necessary given the circumstances. What surprised me was the underlying message about hidden acts of kindness. The story sprinkles them throughout – Cha allows the neglected So-mi to share a meal with him; So-mi gives Cha a funny little manicure while he’s asleep; a kindly old store clerk who turns his head the other way so that the streetwise youth can shoplift some meaningless merchandise; So-mi puts a bandage on an injured killer’s forehead cut; a grizzled police detective who grants Cha a parting wish – so much so that I can’t help but think that they’re all deliberate. Each and every one of these moments is crafted in such a way to deliver a happy message in a film rife with grim elements: you will be repaid for that random act of kindness. You will reap benefits from doing something good for strangers. Your reward may not come instantly, and it probably won’t announce itself with any pomp and circumstance, but it’ll be there, and you’ll know it when you see it.
That’s the hidden beauty of THE MAN FROM NOWHERE. The gift of such a great film is far from hidden. It’s right there when you see it – laced with gunplay and plenty of derring-do – but you can’t escape it.
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