One of the more interesting elements of engaging with this kung fu marathon was what I knew would be its affects on contemporary action films, particularly ones that are much more in line with the action/crime thriller than the special effects laden, high flying fight sequences of their predecessors. While I could have picked from a variety of different Chinese films for this, I decided to branch out slightly and consider a film from South Korea, because, after all, it is my area of research interest and an excuse to catch up with yet another film I had been meaning to check out, this time Jeong-beom Lee's The Man From Nowhere. I say it is only a slight departure from the Chinese films so far, in that it does indeed involve Chinese characters, despite its decidedly South Korean setting, although transnational narratives are far from unusual in South Korean cinema, or much of East Asian cinema for that matter, when one considers proximity and politics. Despite all this I was quite hesitant to include The Man from Nowhere on this month of viewing, because for all intents and purposes it did not appear to be a kungfu film proper, nor even a film whose fight sequences exist with a martial arts based setting. Yet multiple "top martial arts films" lists included this, which I felt justified its inclusion, and while guns are uses in this film on a few occasions, I was quite happy to discover that this is, at its heart a martial arts action thriller, especially considering that when action does occur it often does involve a considerable amount of very intense and well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat. Considering its contemporary style and the state of South Korean cinema, however, the fighting is not poetic or evocative of rhythmic dance, but is, instead; quite brutal and jarringly stripped of its stylized elements, drawing attention to the scars and aftermath of very real physical engagements. Sure it is amazing to watch the protagonist deliver a viscerally filmed beat down, but it always follows with images that remind viewers of the physical tolls such brutality takes on the enemy, as well as the body of the hero. It also does not hurt that The Man From Nowhere might be one of the best shot action films I have ever seen.
The Man From Nowhere, despite being a South Korean film, shies away from completely non-linear narration, excluding a few flashbacks, yet manages to provide a gripping story in the process. The film primarily focuses on the drifter Cha Tae-sik (Bin Won) a pawnbroker, who seems entirely detached from the world around him, aside from a friendship he has formed with a young girl named So-mi (Sae-ron Kim) whose mother, a strung out heroin addict often abandons her to the streets in drug fueled indifference. Content to exist as a pseudo-guardian angel to So-mi, Cha merely moves about his world, although when he fails to help her escape trouble with the cops she dismisses him and suggest that he is just as bad to her as the rest of the world. It is revealed, however, that So-mi's mother has recently been involved in a high scale drug heist and upon failing to deliver the necessary goods becomes wanted by the mob, who take little time finding her and destroying her, also kidnapping So-mi in the process. Cha, is also confronted by the mob, who want their drugs which have been hidden in an item So-mi has pawned. When the mob members assume that Cha was involved and attack him, it is revealed that his fighting abilities are excellent, destroying one man while disarming another in seconds. Word of this gets to the various higher ups and they enact a plan to exploit Cha for his skills with the false promise that he will be afforded the return of So-mi after a completion of the various tasks. Unfortunately, as Cha realizes he is being played into part of a larger mob and police battle, landing himself briefly in jail, all the while worrying for he safety of Cha. Upon escape through a bit of cleverness on Cha's part, he takes it upon himself to hunt down the mob, while the police discover that his skill set is the result of a past life in the Korean equivalent of the CIA, where he lost his pregnant wife in a hit put out by a mob member. This insurmountable loss, helps to explain Cha's unchecked drive as he enters the mob's secret hide out, only to discover that they are exploiting young children for free labor in meth production and eventually trafficking them sexually. Cha then loses all sense of self-control, killing all the mob members and destroying the lab, eventually chasing down the boss of the mob and shooting him in his car, all before finally discovering that So-mi is indeed safe. The closing moments depict Cha playing father figure to the now parentless So-mi, before he heads off to jail for his necessary, albeit, illegal killing spree.
Ethics are a thing that play heavily into South Korean cinema and something that I have discussed ad nausea in relation to the countries contemporary cinema, whether it be in the misappropriation of meaning through religion in Secret Sunshine or the notion of justified revenge that exists in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In these films and many others, it is clear that a moral compass is far harder to align than one might like to admit, and it would certainly seem to extend to the narrative space of The Man from Nowhere as well. However, I would posit that, unlike the previously mentioned films, it is made quite clear that Cha and So-mi are good characters, whereas the mob boss and So-mi's mother are less so, although it does not justify the latter's brutal death in the slightest. The police, perhaps serve as a bit more of a grey area in terms of ethical outlook, but they are certainly far from corrupt and are merely attempting to execute their jobs while working against an economically powerful and transnationally fueled crime syndicate, therefore, any interference, even in Cha's taking out of major figures, proves detrimental because it means they find themselves bogged down in paperwork and rediscovering leads. Indeed, The Man from Nowhere plays out much more like a sporadic and intense game of chess than one of insidious warfare. There seems to be a set of agreements about how events should occur, yet, what is less certain is how many individuals are playing in the game. In this game, Cha is somewhat of a wild card, not because he acts in a counterintuitive manner, but because where the mobsters desire money and safety and the cops desire justice, Cha merely wants to assure the safety of So-mi at any cost, driven to act more violent as he comes to realize her chances at survival are dwindling. Indeed, his breaking out of the jail is interesting, because he seems to understand that the cops are not terrible people, but, nonetheless, serve as a barrier to his ultimate concern, therefore, he maims them temporarily, as opposed to the mobsters whose exploitation of children and those without power is loathsome and deserved of death. Indeed, by the end of this film I found myself drawing parallels to the killing spree enacted by Liam Neeson in Taken, although in every tangible and qualitative way The Man from Nowhere is a far better film than Taken, which I already adore greatly, I think that only speaks to the wonder in this recent South Korean masterpiece.
Key Scene: In the case of this film it is a singe shot, which shows Cha after he has fallen out of a window only to land on a large net. I let out a distinctive gasp of amazement, something that rarely occurs when I watch action films.
This is available streaming on Netflix and Hulu and I am sure it will look just fine, however, this bluray is beyond amazing and worthy of owning. I waited with baited breath for Jeong-beom Lee's next offering.