The Man From Nowhere

cast: Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron, and Thanayong Wongtrakul

director: Lee Jeong-beom

114 minutes (18) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
E One DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Max Cairnduff

The Man From Nowhere

A little girl is in danger after her junkie mother makes the wrong enemies. Her only hope is her reclusive next-door neighbour who she has befriended and who turns out to be absolutely the wrong man for the bad guys to cross.

No, it’s not Léon… it’s The Man From Nowhere. A reclusive man (Won Bin) runs a cheap pawn shop. His only friend – and that barely, is a neighbour’s child named So-mi (Kim Sae-ron). Unknown to both of them, So-mi’s mother has run off with an important heroin shipment intended as a sample for potential Chinese buyers. The police were tracking that shipment and planned to use the handover to bust the gangsters running the drugs, but the handover went wrong when So-mi’s mother lifted the product and, without the evidence, the police case is blown. At the same time the gangsters need their drugs back, and they’re not happy at all about being ripped off.

From there, events spiral out with numerous factions competing with each other. Where it goes wrong for all of them is when the gangsters seize So-mi and her mother. Who would have thought some random guy in a pawn shop could be so dangerous? There’s a lot in The Man From Nowhere. As well as drug running there’s illegal organ harvesting (could be bad news for So-mi and her mother if help doesn’t come fast), exploitation of street children as drug mules, gangsters who torture victims while wearing Dolce & Gabbana suits, and a Thai assassin (Thanayong Wongtrakul) who only speaks in English and who is just as dispassionately deadly as So-mi’s unexpected friend.

The ingredients of The Man From Nowhere are all good. I liked the characters. Won Bin and Kim Sae-ron are both excellent and work well together, and they’re well supported by the gangster brothers who are the main bad guys, as well as by the slightly hapless police trying to catch them all. The build up is well developed, with relatively little action in the first half of the movie (and much of that off-screen), but with time being taken to establish the tentative and fragile friendship between the two leads.

As the film develops and kicks into gear all that groundwork meant that I genuinely cared whether So-mi got rescued or not (these things aren’t as certain in Korean films as they are in Hollywood), and whether the reclusive pawn shop man (who eventually gets named) would survive. The action sequences when they do arrive are expertly handled and the two main face-offs between Won Bin and Thanayong Wongtrakul are both very nicely done indeed.

Why then only a six rating? In truth the answer lies in the running time. This is a film with ambitions to be more than just an action movie, but in part those ambitions get in the way because that’s ultimately what it is. Leon was a film that knew what it was. It knew that ultimately it was a bit silly, but it didn’t care and so it all worked despite how over-the-top it all was (or, in the case of the relationship between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman, how ever so slightly and clearly intentionally creepy it was).

The Man From Nowhere spends a lot of time on mood and theme. It addresses issues of people being more valuable for their parts than for themselves, and it shows how people can become isolated and lose their own sense of worth. It shows damaged people connecting. All that is rewarding material, but the best part of the film is a fast moving extended knife fight. It’s part emotional drama and part action movie and while that’s true of a lot of Korean films, in this case, the two don’t sit that naturally together. For me the result is a film that was longer than really it needed to be.

I’d have been happy with a tale of a reclusive man learning to live again through his friendship with a troubled young girl. I’d have been very happy with more knife fights and over-the-top gangsters. The two together though aren’t quite the sum of their parts, and as a result I’m left with a film where I like almost everything in it, but don’t really care that much about the film itself. That said, it has a great cast, some excellent fight scenes and it drips with cool. If a Korean Léon sounds like your thing, then you might enjoy this film a lot more than I did, and – looking online – plenty have.

Finally, while writing this review I discovered that Won Bin starred in what was for me one of the finest films I’ve seen recently, Mother, where he played a young man with severe learning difficulties. It’s a testament to his ability as an actor that he could play two such utterly disparate roles, here and in Mother, and that even after loving his performance before I didn’t realise it was the same man here. Impressive stuff!