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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "The Man from Nowhere": Masculinity Under Fire

2014/05/31 | 1087 views |  | Permalink

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In the Spotlight this Week: Lee Jeong-beom's "The Man From Nowhere"...

Writer/director Lee Jeong-beom's third feature-length film "No Tears for the Dead" is set to grace Korea's screens this coming week, and so I thought it fitting to return to his breakout blockbuster: "The Man From Nowhere". This stylish action noir went onto become the highest grossing film of 2010, and attracted over 6 million admission during its ten week run with the support of one Won Bin.

Tae-sik is a hermitic pawnshop owner listlessly living out his life in a rundown part of town. He actively avoids cultivating relationships and limits his exchange with others to the cold courtesy of pawning. The only visible hints of his tragic past are a series of scars running across his knuckles, but the lasting wounds are concealed behind his stoic demeanour. This is a man who wanders around the present dragging his heavy history behind him: a chained ghost of a figure trapped wondering around a purgatorial present.

Within his dingy and forgotten apartment block a young girl shadows him in hope. So-min (Kim Sae-ron) is a bright-eyed youngster who, when not being ridiculed by her classmates, suffers the care of her drugged up mother and her promiscuous lifestyle. This soft and life-hardened soul sees past Tae-sik's robust defences, and ceaselessly tries to befriend him despite his unwillingness to answer her cries. But when So-min's deplorable and deviant mother intercepts a drug deal, the two are horrifically whisked into the shady storm of the criminal underworld of drugs, murder, and organ trafficking--a tragic injustice that tugs firmly at our hero's heartstrings and spurs him into action.

"The Man From Nowhere" is a compassionate creation driven by its hero's sense of duty and longing. Tae-sik would much prefer to avoid intervening, and, like most heroes, stubbornly avoids answering the call right until the very last ring. But once he crosses the threshold and commits himself, Tae-sik unleashes a torrent of terror on those seeking to snuff out the young life that believes in him. Our hunky hero wipes the blood from his face, cuts his blinding bangs, and commits himself to her cause with violent vigour; a new purpose that sees his chains channelled and repurposed against the greasy gangsters and their ignoble ilk.

Lee's film did not impress me terribly when I first experienced it. The impotent and clunky cops seemed like unnecessary fluff, and the gangsters themselves where one-dimensional and dim. I still hold these objections against the film, but multiple viewings have steered my appreciation away from such criticisms, and instead towards the film's laudable narrative and stylistic complexities. Won Bin's character is not as complex as the film might have us believe, but his journey and personal compulsions are fascinatingly embedded within a film that manages to draw inspiration from a range of genres and film styles.

Far from being simply another neo-noir, "The Man From Nowhere" is a nuanced pastiche of a picture flecked with disturbingly dark moments, bloody battles, and heavy social commentary, all of which pivot around a pair of characters that one cannot help but be moved by. Modern masculinity, in particular, is a intriguing subtext running throughout the film, and since its enriched with character complexities, quality fight scenes, and a sympathetic/noble quest, the result is a thrilling ride whose highs far outweigh any stagnant sideshows on display.

Of course many viewers won't need much persuasion here, as Won Bin's dreamy demeanour and bad-boy beatings are enough to seal the deal. There are the obligatory shots of the man's heart-thumping thorax, but there is more here than studly star porn. "The Man From Nowhere" has massive appeal, and beyond the Won Bin himself Lee has crafted a compelling piece that Korean cinephiles may want to return to in preparation for this talented storyteller's latest chapter.


- C.J. Wheeler (


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