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March 03, 2011

The Man from Nowhere

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Lee Jeong-beom - 2010
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

The Man from Nowhere certainly fits the description of neo-noir without question. This is one relentlessly grim movie, and I mean that as a compliment, a journey into the darkest black and blue night with just a glimpse of sunlight at the end. There is one scene that recalls Travis Bickle's prepping himself before the climatic scene in Taxi Driver. As Cha Tae-Sik, Won Bin's forward propulsion, stopped neither by cops or gangsters, knives or bullets, might remind some of Lee Marvin as Walker in Point Blank. I doubt the comparisons with other films were unintended.

The film starts of with a drug bust gone bad, with a nightclub dancer snatching a cache of heroin from the would-be target of a drug bust. The dancer has a young daughter who gets into trouble, mostly shoplifting from a candy store. The girl, So-mi tries to ingratiate herself with Cha, a recluse who runs a small pawn shop in the rundown apartment building where they live. The gang seeking the drugs kidnap the dancer and So-mi, involving Cha in the presumption that he knows where the drugs are hidden. The film escalates with Cha caught between the police, and rival Korean and Chinese gangsters, and a plot involving drug smuggling and black market organ transplants.

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Within the darkness is the story of Cha's loss, and eventual recovery, of his humanity. It's this particular aspect of the story that helps explain why The Man from Nowhere was Korea's biggest hit last year. For those who only know Won Bin from Bong Joon-ho's Mother, the performance might come as a surprise, an almost opposite turn from the role in his most widely seen film. Unlike the young man in Mother who was emotionally and socially stunted, Cha is more than mentally and physically capable of dealing with everyone he encounters. Right before the final showdown, one of the gang members points out that they are dealing with only one man, but part of the fun, if I can use the word in this context, is watching this one man take on about a dozen guys with guns, knives and some hand to hand combat.

Complimenting the emotional darkness is the use of unlit or barely lit spaces. In one shot, Cha is barely visible, illuminated only by the light of a cell phone. So-mi is first seen emerging from a darkened corner or lower staircase. In one of the gun battles, Cha is unseen in a dark hallway, with the flash of his pistol providing the only light. Most of the film takes place at night, often in streets and alleys, or in interior settings that could use another light bulb or two.

This is Lee Jeong-beom's second film. Hopefully critical and commercial success will bring about a chance to see Lee's debut film Cruel Winter Blues from 2006. An Interview makes it clear that Lee is planning to stick to action films for now. Lee's take on the genre is grittier than most, so without being overly graphic, there is a sense of the wounds created by bullets and blades. The Man from Nowhere also evokes some of the spirit of classic film noir, corroded over the years, where the cops are incompetent and the criminals are remorselessly vile. Part of the action takes place in Seoul's own Chinatown, and from the cursing of one of the policemen sent there, you might think it not too different from Roman Polanski's Chinatown. It is also worth mentioning that The Man from Nowhere was the most heavily awarded film in Korea's equivalent to the Oscars with the prize going to Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron, the young girl who plays So-mi, as well winning for cinematagraphy, editing and special effects among the seven prizes in all. Even if the film isn't everyone bowl of kimchee, Lee Jeon-beom is one filmmaker to keep an eye on in the future.

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Posted by peter at March 3, 2011 08:04 AM