Lee Jeong-beom’s first movie, CRUEL WINTER BLUES, was a tense, understated, and deeply human revenge film. I wrote about it for Movie Feast, and lavished praise it; a couple of months later, the film is still with me. It was low on action, and high on character and emotion. For his follow-up, Jeong-beom decided to throw “understated” out the window, and went for a balls-out action movie. And I’m OK with that.
I’ve maintained before (though perhaps not specifically on MF) that South Korean filmmakers have rather brilliantly decided not to reinvent the wheel, and instead often take well-established, familiar stories, from well-established, familiar genres, tweak their morality a bit, and then shoot it all brilliantly. Personally, I don’t see a lot of innovation in Korean cinema (at least not the Korean cinema that makes its way over here), but I do see an amazing amount of craft. They don’t need to tell stories in reverse, or have their protagonists become unstuck in time, or adventure with innovative CGI. They just take a good ol’ fashion story, and polish it up real nice. And that’s a good thing.
THE MAN FROM NOWHERE is a good example of this trend. Believe it or not, the script (minus the parts peculiar to Korea) could have been written for Jean-Claude Van Damme during his heyday in the 90s. It’s pretty simple: a mysterious loner named Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin) runs a pawn shop, where his only friend is a feisty and cute little girl named So-Mi (played by the feisty and cute little Kim Sae-ron). At the beginning of the film, So-Mi’s mother, along with her partner, rob a drug dealer, and stash the drugs in Cha’s shop. This is a bad idea. The drug dealer’s men come and kidnap her, and take lil’ So-Mi as well. When they find out she stashed the drugs with Cha, they pay him a visit. And so he fucks them up. Badly.
In a revelation that will come as welcome and expected to action movie fans everywhere, it turns out Cha is an ex-special agent who worked as an assassin (go figure!) for the Korean government. So, he’s a well-trained badass, and while he’s got relatively few morals or human connections, there is just some shit he can’t abide, and kidnapping cute little girls is one of them. So, inevitably, he sets out to kill every last one of those motherfuckers.
But wait, it gets better: these guys don’t just deal drugs, they kidnap children to harvest their organs! Presumably they also strangle puppies in their spare time. You probably don’t remember that from any JCVD movies. Maybe a Segal one, though. In any event, the more fucked up the villains get, the more Cha has to hurt them, and hurt them badly.
And so you end up with a pretty standard action/revenge film, but filmed more simply and beautifully than anything that Hollywood has put out in a long time. Also, in many cases, more violently. Korean cinema is the cinema of well-dressed, well-lit people doing horrific things to each other. And that’s swell.
Of course, one of the other things that distinguishes Korean film, no matter how similar it might be to its North American counterparts, is that it doesn’t play fancy with morality. Good guys don’t always win, just because they’re good guys (if there are any fucking good guys in the movie), and heroes often fail to save the day in the nick of time.
THE MAN FROM NOWHERE is a fun film to watch. It hasn’t left an indelible mark on me--I’ve seen things since that I’ll remember better, and for longer--but it was nice to see someone happy to revisit the type of action films that made the late 80s and 90s so great, and to do it without a hint of irony or nostalgia.