The Man from Nowhere is one of many revenge films from South Korea to mix stylish direction and extreme violence into a tight action film. While it contains some of the downfalls of the genre (the woman in the refrigerator trope being most prominent), The Man from Nowhere is exemplary in demonstrating the genre at its best and most effective.
Tae-sik Cha (Bin Won) is a pawnshop owner who keeps to himself as much as possible but is constantly being nagged by So-me Jeong (Kim Sae-ron), a young girl who trades him odds and ends and supplies him with new music. One day she and her mother are kidnapped by drug lords looking for the heroine stolen by the mother. Tae-sik should end up as collateral damage for the drug lords, but he quickly stands on his own as a threat and begins hunting down members of the organization in order to save So-me.
The story sets up yet another example of the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time throwing a wrench into the schemes of evil and most of the film is enjoying the satisfaction of evil being undone like a stack of dominoes falling over one by one, but also shows how the villains are able to channel some of Tae-sik’s own revenge into furthering their own plans.
And not all of this is done at the hands of Tae-sik. One of the running themes is that the criminal world has a tendency to turn upon and eat itself. Corruption and disloyalty within the organization becomes the subplot that gives a chance for the various villains to have their own power plays and motivations that make watching the whole system unravel at both ends fascinating. Tae-sik may be a wrench in the machine of the criminal organization, but some of the gears find a way to adapt and evolve to the situation which makes the plotting of the film inspired.
Tonally, the film plays broad. There are lots of dark, intense moments mixed with this almost cartoonish sense of villainy that gives way into truly menacing and cruel moments of evil as the film progresses. Evil wears many masks throughout the film and each one is memorable and distinct. Tae-sik’s backstory and his relationship with So-me is also given a melodramatic flair which could have been too much in another film, but brings a much-needed human element to a story where so many characters are incapable of being empathetic.
The Man from Nowhere packs a lot into its two hour runtime with the various power plays, characters involved, and memorable action scenes. There’s barely a frame wasted in the film and each moment builds towards bringing the film to a moment that may come across as too melodramatic for some, but is also surprisingly emotional for a genre often steeped in such an assault on the senses that by the end the audience is left emotionally dead. The Man from Nowhere is one of the finest examples of the genre and a masterful demonstration of economic and effective filmmaking.
© James Blake Ewing 2019