The Man from Nowhere (2010), dir. Lee Jeong-bom, starring Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron, Kim Hee-won, Kim Sung-oh
To Yoora and Young, who introduced me to Korean pop culture.
My first foray into Korean culture started with my two high school best friends, Yoora and Young, who were both Korean-American. I remember one time in my junior year in high school, I had to stay home the whole week after suffering an allergic reaction from eating crabs. The reaction was so bad, I was covered in hives for several days. While I stayed home to recuperate, I finally decided to take on one of the Korean dramas that my friends had been obsessing over a few months earlier: Boys Before Flowers. The show was an over-plotted hot mess with terrible haircuts, incredibly annoying but catchy music (ALMOSTTT PARADISEEEEE), and suffers from intense whiplash storytelling between the enraging Geum Jan Di (probably the one K-drama character who I absolutely loved to hate, so much so that her name is forever synonymous with terrible) and Gu Jun Pyo (the miraculous star-making performance by Lee Min Ho somehow redeemed this asshole). That last part–the whiplash plotting–is something that I have grown accustomed to and actually expect when I watch Korean TV shows or film. Going as far back as films from the 1960s or 70s, I can count on some batshit plotting in any of the Korean films I’ve watched. And since watching that seminal K-drama, I buried myself into other K-dramas (my forever favorite: My Name is Kim Sam Soon) that ultimately extended to Korean cinema, in line with my growing interest in films. Soon, I was watching films by directors like Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon Ho, Park Chan Wook, and other internationally renowned superstar directors, before I dug deeper.
The Man from Nowhere represents two things for me: one, while it may not be the most sophisticated Korean film on this list, it was my gateway to Korean mainstream film and deepened my admiration for Asian pop culture. For my money, it’s the single coolest film I’ve seen from the last decade, and one of the bloodiest, most heart-racing thrills in a genre that has an endless supply. The plot gets grimier and more convoluted as it goes, in keeping with the whiplash plotting of the industry. It also helps that the film is a bit melancholy–which is something of a running theme in East Asian films at the time–which perfectly fit my mood back then. And two, the film hit me at the peak of my angsty senior year in high school, when I was just starting to form my own identity. The film starred Won Bin, a major superstar who has not made a movie since this one came out in 2010, and in a genre that the Korean film industry loved: moody gangster action flicks. In the film, he sported emo hair that covered half his face, only to give himself a fabulous haircut later in the film (I mean if the military thing didn’t work, I argue he should have just been a hair stylist!). He was iconic to me–the epitome of coolness that I lacked, and in some ways I wanted to emulate. I suspect that this film wouldn’t have been in either of Young or Yoora’s wheelhouse, but it certainly struck a nerve with me.
The movie is a deep genre exercise and considering that it was a big hit in Korea in 2010, I still find it surprising how gruesome the film actually is. There’s violence that you see in American cinema, which sometimes feels overblown and emphasizes explosion and gun shots, and then there’s the violence you see in Korean cinema, which can be laceratingly uncomfortable. The uproar that Joker received late last year seems like a joke in comparison to the brazen coldness of The Man from Nowhere. Granted, Joker felt angrier and designed to provoke, whereas I think The Man from Nowhere was operating from a chilly, nihilistic point of view. Our main man, Cha Tae Sik is deeply scarred (physically and mentally) and the film doesn’t waste time establishing that. His one friend is a neighbor’s daughter So-mi (Kim Sae-ron), who hangs out with him against her druggie mom’s wishes, at his pawnshop. When So-mi’s mom steals a huge bag of drugs and the gangsters come to collect from her violently, Tae-sik gets caught in the crossfires. Here, the film begins exhibiting its cruel tendencies—we see So-mi’s mom get tortured with a hair curler in front of her daughter. But we also see it start to demonstrate its cool slickness—Tae-sik is a quiet man, and he takes on the lackies with such silent efficiency. There’s no bravado, there’s just practicality. As the film progresses, we see Tae-sik battle with multiple opponents, dispensing them with such speed and precision, getting injured along the way. I love that our hero isn’t infallible, although he somehow has superhero healing abilities: a weirdly graphic break from beating up gangsters, the scene where Tae-sik had a bullet pullet out of him like Sandra Bullock attempting a tracheotomy in The Heat elicited the one eye-roll from me throughout the movie. Yet the contrast between this slick mastery to the bombast of hypermasculinity that similar genre exercises on American films was a big eye-opener for me. Here, our hero is a slender figure, he’s not a beefy Batman, but his combat moves are far more impressive for their balletic grace and the film captures it with such attention to the exchange of blows, it briefly conjured Bresson doing genre. I loved watching Tae-sik take on these villains, using whatever weapon at his disposal.
As the film digs deeper into the sordid underground business of its villains, it doesn’t absolve Tae-sik as a complete angel or hero. I found his revenge on the younger of the villain brothers so thoroughly merciless it reminded me of anime films that justified such calculated violence with “the end justifies the means.” When Tae-sik is led to believe that So-mi may have been killed, he goes berserk, unleashing his final justice on this glorious A Space Odyssey-like set against his own set of Crazy 88s. Here, the film’s choreography of camera, lighting, and stunt work coalesce to give us a stunning chaotic scene that rivals Tarantino’s own vision: each attack leading to another, so neatly edited, and perfectly in sync with this score that signals a man who has hit the rock-bottom of his internal anguish. In simpler words: it was beautiful.
The Man from Nowhere gets goopy at times, as it touches on Tae-sik’s backstory, but even then, the film finds a way to be unforgiving to its hero. Yet this backstory underpins the melancholy that runs through the movie. And the movie is so rancid, so caught up in its frightening vision of Korea, that I can’t imagine a movie like this be a huge hit in America. Even films like Atomic Blonde or John Wick or Red Sparrow bear similarities to this flick, but they’re uneven. Atomic Blonde is hella cool though and I adore Charlize Theron as a badass. But Atomic Blonde kinda evaporates after the first watch. John Wick is super cool and stylish, but I don’t think it reaches the heights of The Man from Nowhere, and Red Sparrow is just depressingly dull. While I don’t know if another movie can rival The Man from Nowhere in terms of its cool detach, I can take comfort in knowing that this movie exists, and that I can watch its badassery again and again.