The biggest surprise hit in Korean cinema in 2010, ‘The Man from Nowhere’ really did come from absolutely nowhere: a sophomore effort from a director whose debut film was received with barely a shrug; a title so anonymous (the original name of the film is ‘Ajeossi’, a generic term originally used for middle-aged men but now seemingly applicable to any male over 30) as to make one wonder whether they ever had even a small chat about it, let alone a brainstorming session; a plot treading over the well-worn path taken by a thousand other kidnap thrillers; and headlined by Won Bin, an actor who was the classic example of a heartthrob who couldn’t quite carry a movie on his own. While ‘Guns & Talks’, ‘Taegukgi’ and ‘My Brother’ were all major successes, Won tellingly played the younger brother of the main lead in all of them, while his acting was very much that of the protege. After the last of these there was a hiatus lasting five whole years (national service accounting for two), during which he was increasingly deemed somewhat of a has-been, people wondering whether he, or any director, would ever make use of his astonishing good looks and undeniably attractive screen presence. ‘Mother (2009)’ marked his return, but unsurprisingly Won had to make do with the role of a scene-devouring Hye-ja Kim’s son, his screen time barely amounting to a cameo.
Perhaps his absence has contributed to the sheer impact of ‘The Man’ (and, rarely for such a high-profile star, his output in the decade since he burst onto the scene with ‘Autumn Fable’ is just six features, including TV). Certainly, there is still no one who looks quite like him among the country’s actors – a Korean Keanu Reeves who, when filmed right, can make any scene look like an iconic manga artwork. And ‘The Man’ works because of him: despite its derivative nature, its hilariously caricature villains and a nonsensical plot, director Lee, Jeong-bum knows how to use Won, which is to say: let him pose, not act. Perhaps this is harsh, but like Reeves Won is never going to be John Gielgud; instead, he can be an image, a muse, a symbol and a picture more effectively and charismatically than most other actors. In ‘The Man’, silent, brooding, still, smouldering, Won exerts a magnetic hold over the audience. When he starts to string two sentences together, or is called upon to emote for more than a couple of seconds, the illusion begins to shift dangerously, but shrewdly ‘The Man’ sticks more or less to action.
Essentially a homage to the Hong Kong noir of the Eighties, ‘The Man’ concerns the kidnapping of a small girl by a criminal gang attempting to retrieve a stash of drugs stolen by her addict mum, and the attempts by Won – the reluctant surrogate father with the inevitably dark and tragic past – to get her back. So far, so generic, and really an excuse to set the scene for Won to embark on a bloody odyssey of vengeance, but the relationship between Won’s character and the young Somi is handled with surprising gentleness and care. Also effective is the reveal of Won’s history: hints and pointers are dropped here and there, flashbacks intercut the relentless action every now and then, and everything builds up in a crescendo before being unleashed in the final act, signalled by a little bit of self-hairstyling.
But rest assured, this movie doesn’t pull punches. It is an extended bloodbath, a celebration of both the balletic violence which characterized Asian films’ golden era of yesteryear, and the cinematic techniques used to achieve it. What separates ‘The Man’ from other less memorable films, however, is Lee’s confidence in handling all forms of action, including implication and omission: good examples are the earlier encounter with the massive henchman in Won’s pawn shop, and the stare-down between Won and the assassin Lam in the midst of a throbbing group of clubbers. He’s no slouch in the pure action department either, and in a movie that is deeply conservative in theme and technique, there is one particular scene of startling originality that almost made me jump up in the middle of the cinema: Won, chased by cops, leaps out of the window from a few storeys up, and the camera, directly behind, follows him out and lands with him, all in one shot and the subject never leaving the frame. This shot alone is almost worth seeing the movie for. Also, thanks to judicious editing, assured camera work and a sense of purpose behind every scenario, the abundance of violence never grows stale and there is a satisfyingly cathartic effect to the carnage.
‘The Man’, at two hours, is slightly on the long side for a film of its kind, but is paced thoughtfully: it isn’t one breathless chase, and refreshingly Won is required to slow down at certain points to do some real detective work to find and rescue Somi. The main baddies, two laughably evil and comically violent brothers who engage in organ trafficking, are unfortunately unconvincing and are in any case hopelessly upstaged by Thanayong Wongtrakul, a Thai actor playing the aforementioned Lam who gives Won a run for his money in the impossibly handsome actor stakes. When Won and Thanayong are both on the screen, ‘The Man’ really takes off, recalling the epic duels between Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee of ‘The Killer (1989)’. On the down side, when Won isn’t killing people the movie descends into mediocrity, especially when dealing with Somi and the Dickensian plight she suffers during her kidnapping. The organ-dealing story arc gives the director the opportunity to engage in some deeply mediocre and cartoonish shlock horror that gives cause for more eye-rolling (in more ways than one) than genuine revulsion.
Like mentioned earlier, ‘The Man’ is far from an original movie, but what it is, like ‘The Fugitive (1993)’, is a good example of a derivative film done so well that it deserves respect. Another observation of note: Cine21 opined in their review that ‘The Man’ feels different because the protagonist is Won Bin, rather than the more grizzled and obviously masculine grandees of Korean cinema like Song Kang-ho or Choi Min-shik. This is an important point: Won’s presence makes the movie feel more nimble, less self-important or melodramatic, and much like ‘The Matrix’ there’s something refreshing about seeing someone so clearly unsuited to causing mass destruction do it with such style. Six million tickets, a clutch of awards and mass public acclaim later, there should once again be a room in the industry for Won. And this time, he won’t need to play a younger brother.