Monday, February 14, 2011


Cast: Won Bin, Sae-ron Kim, Thanayong Wongtrakul, Kim Tae-hoon
Director: Lee Jeong-beom
Runtime: 119 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Verdict: The action movie of the year. If given a choice, Quentin Tarantino would probably wish his Kill Bill movies were this good.
Genre: Action, Thriller

        Putting the cinematic history of The Man, a.k.a The Man who has nothing personal to do with the film’s events (Chris Sabian in The Negotiator), a.k.a The Man who walks into an ongoing bar-fight to pursue his own selfish ends beats them both and wins it for the morally right (not the Right) the oppressed and the weak (the ronin in Yojimbo, Joe in A Fistful of Dollars), a.k.a The Man who has been hired (financially and later emotionally) to protect and save (The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Sholay, the John Creasys in the two Man on Fire-s), into perspective it is most interesting to note the way the filmmakers choose to open their narrative. The options being – (a) choose the man (b) choose the world and its events. One would remember, in the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood westerns, or Django, or the Clint Eastwood-only westerns (High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, Pale Rider) how the films open to this man, and how that affects the overall political arc of the world inside – a world not needing a help but a savior.
        Does opening to the images of this Man alone signify this hopeless situation? Not really, but often, it seems, a filmmaker opens to the images of a man when his belief is that of a hopeless establishment. Another case in point: Die Hard, where the cops (establishment) are bumbling fools. Now, Die Hard is a seminal action film. But then, parts of its greatness comes at the expense of the toothless nature of the establishment, which seems to be so stupid it cannot find, to quote Navjot Sidhu, their own bums. That reflects in a whole lot of Hollywood action films. Personally, I don’t approve of that. He might not have always loved them but Jean-Pierre Melville always had respect for the abilities of his establishment.
        So yes, using that as a frame of reference The Man from Nowhere opens to an image and an action set-piece that suggests not merely what I approve of but also a most interesting narrative choice. I’m not so sure modern Hollywood outside the cheerfully quirky feel the need to venture into designing a set-piece and characters that exist outside the boundaries of the basic story. But then, what’s supposed to be "the basic story"? For filmmakers like Tarantino (Jackie Brown exception), or Ritchie, these characters become a quirk, a sort of wit and so tend to exist outside this basic story, their actions amounting to an external needle pricking the balloon. All that these needles boast of is traits (or dimensions) attributed to them. For Ritchie, practically everybody is a needle. For a filmmaker like Melville, these characters were a part of the story, so much so that sometimes they are the story (Un Flic). I think it has something to do with honor. And here in Korea, where a lot of these genre filmmakers win a lot of points from me, I’m sure it is out of respect for the establishment.
        The frame is pitch dark. A cigarette is lit. A mobile opens, and we see a face in that little blue light. He talks. Cut. He switches on the light inside the van, and we find a whole bunch of cops sleeping. We understand it is late night. Everyone’s yawning. He tells them its time. They are in for a bust. These are men at work. And it is time. You should see how they unleash themselves. A drug deal is being made. A fat bastard is involved. Stuff happens. Stuff that is the reason for the movie’s plot, something about which I shall try and tell you nothing. You should see the formal skill here. A cab door happens, and the background score is nothing but the beep (similar to the opening in Collateral), and when the door shuts, a dancer springs onto the frame. You can feel the sort of fun these filmmakers were having in the editing room.
        And then, there’s a little messy action, where the cops jump upon the fat bastard like leopards would over an elephant, and find themselves hurled into glass or on the unfavorable end of an uprooted plant. Lot of mess that. Suddenly a shot of a bottle snatched out of a table. The head cop walks, into the mess, yells, and when the fat bastard looks the bottle is hurled onto his head. Mess stops. Silence. The cop remarks something with a smile. The fat bastard runs at him like a crazy bull. The cop grabs him and slams him down on the table. Done, and dusted. In movies, it is rare to have your film open to a cool action scene involving a guy who isn’t even the hero. Imagine the commissioner or the rest of the cops in Face/Off being really smart guys, rather than obligatory people waiting to die.
        The hero, of course, is Mr. Won Bin, and when we first lay our eyes on him hiding behind a whole lot of hair, and a little like John Abraham’s default stance, we remember the diminutive figure from Bong’s Joon-Ho’s Mother. With his lean almost slender figure, and without any kung fu chops, he feels hardly anything like an action figure, and yet he is the titular man from nowhere, and the film once again establishes the smartness with which some of these Koreans establish their titles. I wouldn’t know the literal translation to Ajeossi, but then the English title is just about perfect.
        And yet, or still, he is an action figure unlike any I’ve ever seen. He is no Bruce Lee, or Jason Statham, nor is he Jason Bourne or Chow Yun Fat, and yet he feels the most logical for a man to take on a dozen henchmen. He is probably the only action figure (and yes, this film firmly establishes him as an Action star) you might ever see who fights while he’s crouched on his knees. I tell you, the fight sequences here are one of rare poetry, and yet they are visceral in their punch. An emotionally devastated Mr. Won is surrounded by the bad guy’s men, and he has a voice of deep baritone that rumbles a dialog of great vengeance. And as he wades through the hordes (in hindsight one might say here that Mr. Zack Snyder’s 300 would have learnt much from action sequences here, as would the hollow styling of Kill Bill), and as he bends and punches and swivels and slashes wrists, and as one honorable bad guy with a gun merely stares at the efficiency, economy and lyrical grace with astonishment and admiration, and as the background music soars into a sonata, it brought tears in my eyes. Rarely does a movie or a scene find the soul of art in its action set-piece. Yet, it doesn’t reduce itself to the overt feminism of a John Woo action-piece, which almost feels like a song and dance number. I think a part of it has to do with the modern action framing and cutting techniques, which if not comprehensibility at least render a kind of bluntness to the action sequences.
        Ah yes, there’s in this film arguably the best knife fight ever put on screen. And a tracking shot of great wonder, of Mr. Won running and jumping of the first floor. It is obviously CGI, and yet its beauty lies in the manner in which it reflects the whole aesthetic of The Man from Nowhere, a film whose one probable reason for existence is its almost devotional desire to portray a man in action to be just as beautiful as the otherwise standard images of meadows and mountains and children hopping through parks and birds chirping and the flowers blossoming and the river flowing. Were it left to this film, Microsoft might have provided for a screensaver of Mr. Won in action. With its blockbuster run at the Korean box office, I say it is half-way there. For me, at least.

Note: This review has also been posted at the excellent New Korean Cinema, here.


FilmBuff said...

I've never ventured into Korean movies until I saw 'Mother'. After seeing that great movie, I thought I should see more Korean movies. I just saw 'Chaser' the other night and that too was an amazing piece of film making. I heard it will be remade by Hollywood. Good luck! My previous exposure to Korean film were the romantic made for TV tearjerkers that my wife and sister are fond of. I've previously seen Won Bin in the TV drama 'Autumn Tale' and he has shown that beyond the handsome exterior was a young actor with some serious acting chops. After seeing 'Mother', my wife and I saw 'Tae Guk Gi' which I thought was one of the best war movies I've seen since 'Saving Private Ryan'. Again, Won Bin was in this movie and he provided the emotional and moral core that glues this movie together. Credit him for taking a rather risky move by tackling the unglamorous role of the slow witted son in 'Mother'. With 'Ajeosii' he tackles another career defining role in a genre that he's not well known for. Despite the limited dialogue, we can feel his pain and anger through his body language and facial expressions particularly his eyes. I think that's a mark of a great actor. He's truly believable as an action hero. The young girl is also amazing albeit her limited scenes. She's quite a natural. The chemistry was evident from the beginning. The lead bad guys are also fantastic with their blend of evil humor and psychotic menace. Shades of Leon, Taken and Man of Fire, but with a more emotional core and imaginative action sequences. I loved the use of Filipino style of martial arts in the action scenes particularly the intense fighting in the end. The camera work is both stylish and raw. The scene where the camera follows the movie's hero as he jumps from the second floor of the building was awesome. Reminds me of the scene in Bourne Ultimatum. The stylishly directed movie is indeed very satisfying with its balance of drama, intense action and overall great acting performances. I really enjoyed this movie and it's definitely one of the best of 2010. I already pre-ordered the blu-ray copy that comes out in March. It'll be a great addition to my collection.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

Wow, can't believe I haven't heard of this. I'm going to have to see this at once.