Senior HTF Member
- Feb 12, 1998
- Real Name
- Michael Reuben
The Man from Nowhere (Blu-ray)
South Korea’s highest grossing film of 2010, The Man from Nowhere is a slick and skillfully crafted crime thriller, and it confirms Korea’s status as one of the most vital sources of popular moviemaking today. It seems appropriate that an industry founded by immigrants and outsiders should be periodically refreshed by an influx of foreign talent. In the 20th Century, such talent made the physical journey to Hollywood, whether it was from Europe seeking asylum or from Australia or Hong Kong seeking opportunity. But in the 21st Century, technology and a global economy have eliminated the need for any such pilgrimage. A writer/director like Lee Jeong-beom can make a polished and commercially successful film without ever leaving his homeland. He can borrow whatever he needs from sources such as Man on Fire and Leon the Professional, while using his own surroundings and culture and refracting everything through the sensibilities of his native audience.
The result can be bracingly refreshing for American film enthusiasts numbed by sequels and franchises. Major studios tend to favor action over drama, because the former requires less translation and is therefore easier to export. Ironically, though, the reverse is true for so-called “foreign” action, which is why John Woo’s films have always traveled well. Someone like Woo – or Lee – who can turn action into genuine drama is a rare and special talent.
Studio: Well Go USA
Film Length: 119 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p*
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Korean, English DTS-HD MA 5.1; Korean, English DD 2.0 (224kb/ps)
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Aug. 5, 2010 (S. Korea); Oct. 1, 2010 (U.S., limited)
Blu-ray Release Date: Mar. 8, 2010
*The format is not listed on the disc jacket, but the image quality is such that there is no reason to assume that the image is anything less than 1080p.
The “man” of the title is Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin from Mother), a reclusive pawnbroker. Some in the neighborhood think he’s an ex-con. Others suspect him of being a child molester, especially Hyo-Jeong (Kim Hyo-seo), his neighbor, whose suspicions are mostly based on the fact that Tae-sik won’t go out with her (a transaction that would probably require an exchange of currency). Only Hyo-Jeong’s young daughter, So-mi (Kim Sae-ron), considers Tae-sik a friend, probably because So-mi is lonely. Her mother works as a dancer at a local club, and she also has a serious drug habit. So-mi is often left on her own, and although Tae-sik doesn’t say much, he lets her pawn her MP3 player now and then (and never sells it), and he lets So-mi share his meals.
(Most reviews, internet write-ups and even Well Go’s PR material reveal Tae-sik’s background. I saw the film without knowing any specifics, and it’s much more enjoyable that way; so I won’t do the same. Avoid other reviews if you can.)
The club where Hyo-Jeong works is controlled by a crime boss known as Mr. Oh (Song Young-chang). Mr. Oh is currently doing business – or is it something else? – with a rival gang backed by the Chinese mafia and led by two brothers, Man-seok (Kim Hee-won) and Jong-seok (Kim Sung-oh). Mr. Oh is also being investigated by Kim Chi-gon (Kim Tae-hoon), a detective with the Korean DEA, who is determined to bring down Mr. Oh’s entire operation.
In the film’s opening sequence, Kim Chi-gon and his cops stage a raid on Mr. Oh’s club, where they believe a drug deal is in progress. But the dope has disappeared, stolen by Hyo-Jeong and her dealer. Although the bust has been thwarted, Mr. Oh gives the two brothers, Man-seok and Jong-seok, a tight deadline to recover the stolen drugs. It takes them little time to track down Hyo-Jeong, but she’s hidden the drugs in Tae-sik’s neighboring pawnshop. Seizing Hyo-Jeong and her daughter, the brothers send two thugs to recover their goods, but, as everyone suspected, Tae-sik turns out to be much more than just a pawnbroker, and the thugs don’t succeed (to put it mildly). So the brothers shift tactics, abducting mother and daughter as leverage to force Tae-sik to deliver the drugs to Mr. Ho. Meanwhile, they tip off the DEA, planning to let the law eliminate Mr. Ho as a rival and use Tae-sik as the fall guy.
As Tae-sik grasps the danger facing little So-mi, he transforms, and the film, which has been gathering speed while it acquaints us with all the players, hits full velocity. The former pawnbroker has become a walking weapon with a single purpose.
To fully appreciate the narrative efficiency of The Man from Nowhere, it’s useful to recall Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, in which Denzel Washington played a character on a similar mission to track down the kidnappers of a young girl. Scott and his screenwriter felt it necessary to give Washington’s character a buddy, played by Christopher Walken, who delivered lengthy exposition explaining his friend’s motivations. While I happen to like the film, and one should never regret any opportunity to hear Christopher Walken deliver ornate dialogue, the fact remains that those scenes violate a basic rule of good storytelling: show, don’t tell. If a secondary character needs to explain why the protagonist is doing something, either the movie is missing essential scenes, or the filmmakers don’t think the audience is smart enough to understand the characters (or both).
The Man from Nowhere makes neither mistake. By the time Tae-sik sets out in search of the brothers, Man-seok and Jong-seok (whose villainy turns out to be more heinous than mere drug-dealing), scenes between him and So-mi have thoroughly explored their odd relationship and established Tae-sik’s motivation. These scenes are sensitively and touchingly performed (both actors took honors at the 2010 Korean Film Awards, as did the film and its director). A few missing pieces of the emotional puzzle emerge in flashback as the DEA finally uncover the mysterious man’s background. By the time the biggest action set pieces occur, something very real is at stake.
Director Lee has said that he wanted to make an action film that was clean and efficient. He doesn’t prolong the battles artificially with slow motion or extend their duration beyond plausible human endurance. As an actor, Won Bin is not a slab of beefcake, but a tall, slender figure who moves gracefully. His Tae-sik is lethal by being faster than everyone around him, like a rattlesnake. Even in the film’s ultimate confrontation with the brothers’ chief henchman, an unflappable killer named Ramrowan (Thai actor Thanayong Wongtrakul), the battle isn’t prolonged. The two professionals fight, and one of them kills the other – coolly and proficiently.
Ramrowan is also typical of the film’s subtle humor. He speaks only in English, with his dialogue subtitled in Korean, as if he had learned his badass attitude from American movies. And everyone understands him. Also very funny (at least I thought so) is a scene in which the Korean DEA agents manage to obtain information being withheld by their own intelligence service by duping American intelligence with just the right bait. Given our performance in the intelligence arena for the last dozen years or so, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
When the cinematographer for Mother said that he wanted to get away from the digital look of contemporary Korean cinema, he probably had films like The Man from Nowhere in mind. There’s nothing wrong with this look, but it’s truly striking that directors and cinematographers continue to capture images on film when the obvious intent in post-production is to make the final product look like digital video. The Man from Nowhere has a beautifully detailed image with exceptional depth of field in most shots and shadow detail that is almost always uncompromised. It was obviously lit and photographed with enormous care to control grain; any remaining trace of film grain was then eliminated via digital intermediate, because there’s none to be seen. As a result, the presentation of this two-hour film on a BD-25 has been possible with no diminution in image quality and no digital artifacts that leapt out at me. The color palette is dominated by cool blues, and the blacks are deeply black. This is an excellent transfer that sets a standard I hope Well Go will be able to maintain.
The DTS lossless track is powerful and immersive, but it’s not especially showy. In keeping with director Lee’s “clean” and “efficient” approach, we don’t get bullets that ricochet around the room or cars that screech from front to back. But when things happen, they happen with impact: explosions, car crashes, gunfire, the sharp ring of knife blades colliding. I can’t evaluate the quality of the Korean dialogue, but it does remain anchored to the center. (There’s a lossless English dub track, which I didn’t sample.) The richly orchestral score is by Shim Hyun-jeong, and it has a nice sense of presence.
The special features are listed below in the order presented on the features menu. The disc is oddly mastered, in that the selecting any feature will cause the disc to play all subsequent features automatically, even though there is no “play all” option.
All features are standard definition, and none is enhanced for 16:9.
Teaser (2.35:1) (1:06). This was clearly prepared for the U.S. market. Both the film’s titles and the intertitles are in English.
Full trailer (2.35:1) (1:42). Similar to the teaser, this was also prepared for the U.S. market.
Highlights (2.35:1) (5:11). While the press materials describe these as action highlights, they’re more like a plot preview, with the first few minutes focusing on the relationship between Tae-sik and So-mi.
Making Of (4:3) (17:23). This is a combination of on-set footage showing the actors, stunt coordinator and director rehearsing and filming fight sequences, followed by several promotional shorts. Each short focuses on a different principal promoting his or her part in the film; the principals are Won Bin and Kim Se-ron (the two main actors) and director Lee.
Additional Trailers. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Ip Man 2, Legend of the Grandmaster, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, Yoga and 9th Company; these can be skipped with the top menu button but are not separately available from the features menu.
Every year I read the perennial complaints about the lack of good movies, and every year I’m delighted and surprised by gems like The Man from Nowhere. I’ve given up on the abstract debates about the death of cinema, which has been repeatedly pronounced since the advent of talkies. I’d rather watch the good movies that continue to be made, and spread the word about the ones I’m fortunate enough to have a chance to review on well-produced Blu-rays like this one.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Acoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub