If you are allergic to effusive praise or unabashed admiration, you might want to look away. This is about to turn into a lovefest. I know that my viewing of The Man from Nowhere is still fresh in my mind but I sincerely believe that years from now I will look back on it with the same fondness that I have attached to The Professional ever since I saw that film. This movie takes the ragged intimacy of a gritty revenge thriller and spikes it with the raw emotional appeal that is often missing from other entries in the genre. It may be a cliché to call this movie an action flick with heart but if the blood-stained shoe fits, who am I to argue.
Tae-Sik (Won Bin) leads a solitary life. He owns a pawnshop and goes through his days minimizing contact with the outside world as much as possible. So-Mi (Kim Sae-ron) is the exception to this rule. The little girl relies on his company to escape the ugliness of her own existence. She trades playlists with him for a bit of money and isn't shy about coming in for a snack that he may or may not have chosen with her in mind. It is an odd and stunted relationship that relies on his silence and her bright-eyed bluntness to survive. Looking past their awkwardness, it is apparent that So-Mi is the closest thing that Tae-Sik has to a friend and she clearly recognizes something paternal in him.
It takes so little to destroy a delicate balance. In Tae-Sik and So-Mi's case, the nastiness of the world around them intrudes in a big way when So-Mi's mom steals a packet of drugs from some gangsters. She means to resell it but only after sampling a bit herself. When the gangsters track her down, they show no mercy. Pretty soon, So-Mi and her mom have been kidnapped and Tae-Sik is on a short leash if he ever wants to see his little friend again. Without ruining where the film goes from here, let me just say that Tae-Sik wasn't always a pawnshop owner. He has a dark past of his own and with it a very particular set of skills that will make things very sticky for So-Mi's captors.
By now it should be evident that this film has a lot of genetic material in common with Taken, Man on Fire and The Professional. With that said, the result is a fine argument for nurture over nature. Its Korean upbringing imbues the film with an unpredictable darkness and an almost melodramatic emotional core. This has the effect of taking what could have been a lean and mean genre exercise and turning it into something a bit more epic. I don't mean to suggest that any single element of the film is over the top. The villains are evil in a sickeningly realistic sense. The action, though stylized, is brutal and messy. Relationships between characters are severed and frayed in ways that mainstream Hollywood just wouldn't have any part of. While all of these elements work individually, they ultimately blend together in a whole that isn't just a sum of its parts.
While the credit for the film's success is shared by the entire production crew, I want to single out writer/director Lee Jeong-beom for what he has accomplished here with the help of stellar performances from Won Bin and Kim Sae-ron. Going into this, Lee must have known that he was venturing where plenty had traveled before him. This doesn't stop him from rushing ahead with supreme confidence. Besides having a sharp eye for composition, his key technical skill is an acute understanding of what escalation can bring to the table. Action is so much more satisfying when it builds upon itself, gradually raising the stakes and the viewer's pulse at the same time. It is a rare accomplishment to claim that every action beat in a film eclipses the one that came before it. Lee does exactly that. By the time he unleashes the bloody finale and its celebration of breathtaking knife play, you are primed and ready to enjoy it.
Won Bin and Kim Sae-ron give the bloodshed purpose by giving depth to what could have been cardboard cutouts. The 'quiet badass' and 'child in peril' characters seem played out until you see what Won and Kim do with them here. So-Mi has suffered from years of neglect. Kim gives us a peek at the damage without turning it into So-Mi's defining characteristic. There's a heartbreaking scene where So-Mi feels slighted by Tae-Sik but admits that she can't afford to hate him because then she wouldn't have anyone that she liked. Moments like these show us why So-Mi is worth saving.
Of course Kim's work would be wasted if she wasn't acting opposite Won Bin. Won efficiently adds a layer of complexity to Tae-Sik by playing a fairly young character with an old soul. He hides behind a mop of hair like a petulant teen but every time he takes stock of his situation, you can tell that the turning gears have been in motion for a long time. Won is also a pleasure to behold in his action scenes. Besides performing numerous stunts himself, he gives every movement of his body a disarming fluidity which leaves you unprepared for the chaos it is about to cause.
I could talk about the film's minor flaws like the initially confusing topography of the criminal wasteland or the predictability of certain plot points but that would only take away from the message I am trying to send. The Man from Nowhere deserves to be everywhere, especially on a screen in front of your eyeballs.