A man holding a hatchet chases a car full of gangsters down an empty, wide boulevard. He looks down and sees blood pouring from a bullet wound in his abdomen. He approaches the first car he sees. A man on a phone screams and flees. He continues to chase the car of gangsters. But he is bleeding heavily. He must find something to stem the tide of blood before he passes out. He needs to find the girl. But first he needs to get the bullet out. Darkness is closing in. Fade out.
Darkness. A light out of the black. A cherried cigarette illuminates faces inside a van. The call comes to the undercover cops on stakeout: wait for the drop, then take the man called Bear down. Simple. But it never goes like it’s supposed to. If it did there would be no film.
In The Man from Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010) Bin Won portrays the diminutive Cha Tae-sik, a wooly-haired recluse the locals call “pawnshop ghost” whose only friend is the ten year-old neighbor girl, So-mi. Although he buys her sausage and they eat together in his spartan apartment, the talk is sparse and the cinematography echoes his disturbed and dark past with desultory lighting and accented shadows. Dispelling the pedophile angle early by alluding to her heroin-addicted mother who has male “friends” visit at night, it is through their various interactions that we see that he is not merely concerned for her lack of proper role model, but is conflicted in his as yet undefined role as father figure. It is to intermittent adult contemporary guitar and soulful piano music that these first 25 minutes rather slowly elapse, creating a sentimental connection that will be heavy-handedly drawn on later.
Cue the torture. Specifically on So-mi’s mother, kidnapped and turned up dead and organ-harvested in the trunk of the car Cha is forced to deliver heroin in to a rival gang leader (who thinks Cha is an emissary of a Chinese drug ring). All in order to save So-mi, also kidnapped and being held as one of many “ants”, a massive farm system of child mules delivering drugs, who will later serve as involuntary organ donors. Yeah, complicated. To the upstart kidnappers/ organ harvesters/ drug dealers, Cha is a pawn, being used to destroy the incumbent gangster in a trap, and thrown away.
But Cha persists. The subtlety of his facial expressions hidden by his ragamuffin hairstyle pregnant with meaning so commonplace in Asian cinema allures as much as it distracts. Making up for that is his silence. He is a man who expresses himself through his actions. And action is what he does best. Which the police soon find out when they manage to subdue him only through sheer numbers. Waking up cuffed to a chair in a police station he speaks only to ask to use the restroom. Cue to six policemen being hospitalized and Cha back on the street, searching for any way to find So-mi.
Amazed by his prowess, we learn from the police—in their only adept move throughout the film—that this man from nowhere is a former Special Forces Agent with ties to Army Intelligence. In his search for the girl, he hunts any lowlife who may provide a link, and we experience how far Cha will go to achieve his goals—from his methods of information retrieval (“tell me what I want and I won’t hurt you”) to hand-to-hand fighting a la Jason Bourne with a Thai assassin in a toilet stall next to the corpse of a dead woman. The attention to detail vis-à-vis the mise-en-scène (shot selection, lighting) is as startling as the editing is kick-bass tight, driving the story forward without visual fodder.
Yet as what it is that drives him to undergo beatings, get himself arrested, and kill a lot of people (though all of them very bad guys) becomes clearer to us, director Jeong-beom ratchets ups the violence the closer Cha gets to his goal, ostensibly saving the life of the orphan So-mi, and symbolically avenging the brutal murder of his wife and unborn child by some unnamed assassin we see only in flashback. Subconsciously blaming himself for drawing them into his nefarious world of black ops, we can surmise that the only reason he hasn’t already killed himself is that he feels his redemption lies in this little girl.
The various subtexts are more subtle than in many preceding Korean films, gently poking as it does to the considerable American military and C.I.A. presence still in South Korea, prodding at the inept police work of an inexperienced force, and gently stroking the idea that looming in plain sight, society is secretly controlled by massive organized crime syndicates. In its soft persuasion the film is successful in allowing critical viewers an opportunity to realize that much more is being shown than yet another typical action flick.
The good intentions of the script, direction and acting notwithstanding, the plot of the film remains Hollywood predictable: the strong, silent and handsome hero will destroy the evil organ-harvesting gangsters and rescue the girl. Overcoming the ineptitude of a bumbling, paper-obsessed bureacracy in the process. Yet because these characters symbolize something much bigger than merely themselves, there is a deeper beauty than the gun-metal gloss of cinematographer Lee Tae-yoon, the crisp direction of Lee Jeong-beom, and the enigmatic acting of Bin Won. As cliche as it may sound, they embody the hope of a burgeoning nation struggling to become more self-aware amongst a country divided, and the dream of residing as equals within a larger region that has bent her to their will for centuries. It will be messy. There will be blood. The hero—the free radical in the system through which honorable ends are realized—may be put through such mental anguish and physical torture as to be unrecognizable by the film’s end. But, against clearly unsurvivable situations, the girl—which is to say the innocence of the country—will survive. And as the memory of the hero then becomes legend, the village ethos sheds its skin and lives on in new mythology.