Connections between Eastern and Western cinema aren’t new, but they do seem to be proliferating. Back in 1964, Italian maestro Sergio Leone borrowed from Japanese genius Akira Kurosawa, turning Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. Just last year, Korean writer-director Lee Jeong-Beom looked to the West for multiple influences, and the result is The Man From Nowhere, a psychological action-thriller that alternately engages, confuses and kicks major butt.
The film was a late-summer hit in its homeland, but it’s probably OK that the rest of the world had to wait until now for this technically superb Blu-Ray release. Subtitled gangster yarns don’t sell well in the American market – at least not the ones that rely on gritty plotting instead of high-wire special effects. In other words, this is no Crouching Tiger, kids. That’s more of a Chinese development. Like Leone’s Man With No Name, The Man From Nowhere is an enigmatic antihero, and the main reason you root for him is because everyone else in the picture – rival gangs and creepy cops – is more disturbed than he is. The exception is an innocent young girl who becomes a kidnap victim whom our hero vows to rescue.
Even if you saw Bin Won’s stellar, sensitive performance in 2009’s Mother, you might not recognize him as the secretive, shaggy-haired Tae-Sik Cha, a withdrawn loner with troubled past. (A hint: He used to have a pregnant wife.) His only friend is a neighbor child named So-Mi (Sae-ron Kim). When the girl’s irresponsible mother gets in serious trouble with dope dealers who also traffic in stolen body parts for illegal transplants, they are both captured and threatened with deadly dismemberment.
Oh, yes, it’s gets a lot more complicated. Profane thug conversations fill the spaces between more heists, screw-ups and double-crosses than you can keep track of. And just when you start to feel weary trying to keep up, director Lee thrusts you into a gut-grabbing gun battle, fist fight or – our favorite – some hand-to-hand knife combat that makes you wonder if anyone was slashed in rehearsal. These death matches are accomplished without anyone flying or hovering, either.
There are so many warring factions and sneaky police that it’s difficult to know who’s murdering whom at every given moment. No worries: The action scenes make up for it, and we always know who our hero is because he has a distinctive rock-star haircut that tends to flop down covering the right side of his face. By the time he cuts it, his soulful stare is all the identification we need.
The Man From Nowhere brings unexpected emotion to a tale of violent retribution, because it’s also about a sense of personal salvation that one seldom finds in a bloodbath. That’s not an easy course to chart, and Lee deserves credit for navigating it without looking foolish or insincere.
As for cracking the language barrier, there are decent options. We’ve always preferred watching foreign films in the original language with subtitles, but in this case, I can argue in favor of listening to the English dubbed dialog, the better to appreciate Lee Tae-Yoon’s flawless cinematography. Shooting mostly in darkened rooms, cars and alleys, he captures exquisite detail in medium and close-up shots. When he takes us to a well-lit place (the mandatory nightclub sequence, for example), he makes neon and strobe come alive.
We watched the film both ways, and then for fun we listened to the English dub while viewing the English subtitles. The differences in wording are of interest, perhaps, only to old scribblers, but there is fun to be had if you are that kind of nerd.
The 1080p high-def presentation has an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, presented in AVC/MPEG-4 at a bit rate that varies between 15 and 25 Mpbs. Images are sharp even in the darkest settings, befitting a film noir told in various shades of black. Close-ups do justice to the actors’ expressiveness, and small details pop out when it’s apparent they will be significant later.
We get four choices. The English translations come in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 at 48 KHz at 2.0 Mbps, or in Dolby Digital 2.0 at 48 KHz at 224Kbps. You get the same two alternatives in the original Korean as well. They’re all clean and clear, with the music cues focus on the front speakers and the surround channels reserved more for action sequences. The subtitles come in English only.
Teaser trailer (1:06) Art house meets action flick.
Full trailer (1:42) Heck with the art house. This trailer is about gunplay and battling awesome odds.
Highlights: (5:11) Sort of like those three-minute condensed versions that FX series get late at night. The purpose escapes us.
Making of (17:23) Backstage blocking and rehearsing. As if we didn’t know those long fight scenes weren’t strictly spontaneous. If you ever wondered how a stuntman falls a long way into a net, here’s your shot. The director explains the story’s emotional underpinnings, and we catch a couple of rare smiles from actors preparing their scenes.
We can no longer pigeonhole “Asian” or “gangster” or “revenge” movies into easy categories. There’s lots of overlap, and that is mainly a good thing. The Korean movie audience isn’t bigger than ours, but they may be just a tad brighter.