A few years back, when my love affair with Korean cinema had just begun and I was obsessed with tracking down every Korean film I could find, inevitably, I stumbled upon Oldboy. These days, people who have even a slight affinity to film will know what Oldboy is, but back then, I was the first of my friends to watch it and I went in completely un-spoilered, un-overhyped and somewhat unaware of what to expect. Two hours later, as I was struggling to pick up my jaw from the floor where I had dropped it during the film, I thought to myself that it would be a long, long while before a film would manage to impress me. Not in a sense where it would outdo Oldboy (in terms of intensity if nothing else), because I was pretty sure that was impossible at the time, but in the sense where a film would still manage to elicit an emotional reaction out of me. And then, a week later, I saw A Bittersweet Life and was force-fed a copious amount of my words. No, it didn’t outdo Oldboy in terms of story, because story-wise, A Bittersweet life was nothing too out of the ordinary, but the slick execution, the assured direction and most importantly, the central performance were so impressive to me that A Bitterweet Life became one of my favorite films and Lee Byung Hun one of my favorite actors. The Man from Nowhere reminds me of A Bittersweet Life in that way. The story is in no way exceptional, in fact, it feels like it relies heavily on the pre-established elements of its genre so as to not have to explain itself too much. But the execution, the feel of the film, and Won Bin’s performance throughout are what make the film stand out and become more than the sum of its parts.
Speaking of which, Won Bin, where have you been all my life? Being the quiet type, he answers with a nod towards the film poster, but noticing my lost expression he deigns me with a: “Nowhere, I have been nowhere.” Okay, I say, that’s a little vague, but that’s alright, because you are HERE NOW! *heart eyes*
I think I have been living under a rock or something. I know Won Bin has been a top star for years now, I have known of him, but have not seen him in anything. Yes, I somehow managed to avoid both Taegukgi and Mother. How, you ask? I have no idea. I just kept postponing. Why, you ask? I am even more at a loss than you, but boy, is my face red right now. And I call myself a Korean film lover. Pfft.
On to the film, the story is true to its genre. The main character feels archetypal – the loner with incredible fighting skills and a past so painful that it turns him into a recluse. The only person he seems to have any sort of emotional connection with is the little girl next door. When she is in danger, he springs into action to save her, battling his own demons on the way.
Cha Tae-Sik as a character is probably what City Hunter’s older, less fashion-savvy brother would be like. You know, with the hair (before he cuts it), and the expressive eyes, the hidden vulnerability, the mad skills. And the hotness, let’s not forget the hotness. He’s an ex Super Special Forces agent who lost his wife and child in the aftermath of one of his missions. Ever since, he has been living as a pawnshop keeper, with seemingly no connection to anyone except the little girl who befriends him and takes refuge in his house from her druggie mother. When the girl’s mother steals the heroin meant for a transaction with the Chinese dealers, she sets off a chain of events that consist of kidnapping, organ harvesting, child slavery and Cha Tae Sik taking down a drug/organ trafficking gang, while putting a big chunk of the city’s police department in the hospital. The eventual killing of the two heads of the gang (one of them being played by the same guy who played Hyun Bin’s secretary in Secret Garden in a creeeeepily psychopathic way) is particularly satisfying(as a viewer), as these were a couple of really, really bad little piggies. He can’t really get much satisfaction out of that because at the time he thinks the little girl is dead too, after having had her eyes plucked out, no less, so he gets ready to put a bullet through his own head. At that very moment, though, he hears the little girl calling him and he desists. As it turns out, the killer that worked for the organ harvesting/drug dealing gang and the only one who was a match for Cha Tae Sik in terms of fighting skills had chosen to kill the guy who was working for his organization instead of the girl because she had once given him a band-aid. Okay, that was a little far fetched, even within the genre, but all was forgiven because a) she had to get away somehow and b) it caused Won Bin to smile. And he has such a pretty smile. So all’s well that ends well. Except Cha Tae Sik probably went to prison for a very long time, even with whatever attenuating circumstances he had going. And the little girl was left all alone to fend for herself. But she did get a backpack and a hug and she got to live, which is, well, pretty damn important.
All in all, I really enjoyed the film. Are there better ones out there? Most likely, but The Man From Nowhere provides good entertainment for a couple of hours and the relationship between the characters is warm and touching, so even if it is all an excuse to see some action and get some thrills (personally, I was thrilled to see the scene with Won Bin’s abs), the set up is great, even reminiscent of Leon up to a point, and the ending, with Cha Tae Sik asking the little girl for a hug and everything that gesture implies for him is genuinely heartwarming and beautifully played.