Brutal violence dominates the dynamic Korean thriller “The Man From Nowhere.” Local heartthrob Won Bin (“Mother,” “Tae Guk Gui”) transforms himself into an action hero in writer-helmer Lee Jeong-beom’s swift and blood-soaked yarn, about a mystery man who gets caught up in a gang war while trying to protect a child, recalling Luc Besson’s “The Professional.” This August release went boffo to become the Korean peninsula’s biggest hit of 2010, with a still-rising cume of $40 million. Genre elements will be too familiar to warrant theatrical distribution outside Asia, but prospects are promising for the global ancillary market.
A bedraggled stranger (Won) works as a pawnbroker while living in a Seoul slum’s rundown basement. Going by the name “a-jeo-ssi” (Korean for “Mister” and the pic’s domestic title), the man avoids the junkies and deadbeats who inhabit his building, but has a soft spot for youngster So-mi (Kim Sae-ron, “A Brand New Life”), who often visits him to escape her violent home life.
So-mi’s drug-addicted exotic-dancer mother, Hyo-Jeong (Kim Hyo-seo), gets in over her head when she steals a package of heroin belonging to local gang leader Oh (Song Yeong-cheong), who aims to push the drug into the lucrative mainland Chinese market. Oh sends his two brother lieutenants — the no-nonsense Man-seok (Kim Hee-won) and the wild-eyed Jong-suk (an over-the-top Kim Song-oh) — to retrieve the stolen drugs.
Though indifferent to Hyo-jeong’s fate, Mister finds himself moved to action when he realizes So-mi has been kidnapped. Navigating the city’s sleazy underbelly, the stranger raises the ire of the local gangs as he pursues his self-appointed mission. Seoul police, lead by Det. Kim Chi-gon (Kim Tae-hun), have enough trouble keeping track of shifting gang rivalries (as will auds), but are even more confused when the unknown vigilante appears to be helping them out.
Won reinvents himself here as an action star, revitalizing the thesping career that was recently put on hold due to his military service. With bangs obscuring most of his face and a mannered, guarded attitude that hides his character’s sentimental motives, Won is commanding, and always seems ready to explode. A scene in which a semi-naked Won flexes his muscles while cutting his hair is sensational, and arguably more compelling than pic’s high-level violence.
Tyke thesp Kim Sae-ron endears throughout. Supporting cast also impresses, from Kim Song-oh’s delirious childlike gangster, to Thanayong Wongtrakul’s refined but vicious Vietnamese thug and Baek Soo-ryeon’s sinister but dignified aging child trafficker.
Helmer Lee Jeong-beom (“Cruel Winter Blues”) shows a flair for action sequences, squeezing tension out of every fight scene choregraphed by Park Jung-ryul. While helmer knows when to pause for effect, the pic sustains momentum over its nearly two-hour running time, and Lee offers the viewer so little time to breathe, let alone think, that he seems to be protecting his script from deeper examination.
“The Man From Nowhere” reps further evidence of the current trend toward extreme violence in contempo Korean cinema, and some unnecessarily ghoulish moments nudge pic into horror terrain. In a perhaps unintentional nod to decorum, the lurid sexual tension established between So-mi and Won’s Mister early on is considerably diluted by the near-total separation of the two characters over the course of the film.
Commercial-slick lensing creates a dark milieu that reflects the characters’ external and internal lives. Other tech credits are topnotch.