J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Action Korea: The Man from Nowhere

Cha Tae-sik is not one of those reality TV pawn shop owners. He is all about keeping a low profile. However, when the neighbor girl is kidnapped by drug and organ traffickers, he does what needs to be doing. One-upping the Taken premise and then some, Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man from Nowhere (trailer here) has become a contemporary touchstone for action cinema connoisseurs, so it logically screens during Action Korea, the Museum of the Moving Image’s weekend survey of some of the most explosive Korean films of recent vintage.

Cha does not say much, but young So-mi still likes spending time in his pawnshop. It is a more stable environment than what passes for a home with her junkie stripper mother, Hyo-jeong. However, Cha is reluctant to form attachments because of his tragic backstory. There is also a lot of bone crushing and gunplay in his past.

With little pre-planning, Hyo-jeong and her deadbeat lover steal a heroin shipment from Man-seok and Jong-seok, two Korean gangster brothers looking to make a break from the Chinese mob. When they abduct the mother and daughter, they also pay a call on their neighbor. Cha tries to be reasonable, but when they make it clear they have no intention of returning the now orphaned So-mi, Cha goes into full hunter-killer mode.

So what if Nowhere bears some similarities to prior action films, at least on paper? It is tough to match its fight sequences. Wildly cinematic but still totally down and dirty, they approach the standard set in The Raid franchise. Former heartthrob Won Bin successfully remakes himself into a stone cold hard nose, whereas young Kim Sae-ron is absolutely heartbreaking as the Dickensian urchin, So-mi. Their chemistry together it genuinely touching. They might just get you a little teary eyed, while also getting your blood lust up.

Nowhere has a cast of dozens, with more name character cops and criminals than viewers really need to worry about. Yet, Thai actor Thanayong Wongtrakul towers above the rest of the field as the trafficker brothers’ wildcard henchman, Ramrowan. Wongtrakul performance is unusually subtle for a villain, portraying him as a full blooming psychotic who is increasingly disgusted with his employers’ cruelty, totally keeping viewers off balance at key moments.

It is easy to see why Nowhere was a monster box-office smash in Korea and a cult hit everywhere else. The action scenes give no quarter and the ending just rips your guts out. Many subsequent films have been measured against it, so if you haven’t seen it yet, this is good opportunity to catch up (especially since it will soon no longer be available for Netflix streaming). Highly recommended, The Man from Nowhere screens tomorrow (4/5) at MoMI. The blistering Confession of Murder is also perfect for Easter weekend, screening today (4/4) as part of Action Korea.

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