Colette Balmain reviews the opening film of LKFF 2010
The Man From Nowhere (아저씨- Ajeossi) (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)
Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin), is a man shrouded in mystery, a loner who runs a small pawnshop and who is positioned on the margins of society. His only meaningful relationship is with the young girl, So-mi (Kim Sae-ron), who lives with her mother, Hyo-jeong (Kim Hyo-seo) – a drug addict and prostitute – in the apartment next door. When Hyo-jeong foolishly steals a shipment of heroin from two psychotic brothers, Man-sik and Jong-sik, she not only signs her own death warrant but places So-mi in jeopardy. In retaliation, the brothers arrange for Hyo-jeong and So-mi to be kidnapped and send henchmen to the pawnshop to retrieve the stolen goods. In an attempt to rescue Hyo-jeong and So-mi, Tae-sik reluctantly agrees to be a drug mule for the brothers. The delivery turns out to be a set-up – part of the brothers plan to murder Mr Oh who is the head of the drug ring – and Tae-sik ends up being hunted by the police for the murder to Hyo-jeong, whose dead body (which has been harvested for organs) is found in his car. In a race against time Tae-sik must hunt down the brothers before So-mi suffers the same fate as her mother while administering his own brand of bloody and brutal justice.
The Man From Nowhere was last year’s opening film at the London Korean Film Festival (Odeon West End, Leicester Square, 5th November 2010), and played to a packed and appreciative audience which included Jonathan Ross. Basically a Korean revenge drama, which is for me the quintessential South Korean film genre, The Man From Nowhere delivers fast paced action, an empathetic anti-hero, exquisitely composed and choreographed set-pieces together with liberal lashings of melodrama. Won Bin is particularly impressive, managing to break away from his K-idol status by turning in a nuanced performance as the man who finds redemption through violence. In a self-reflexive scene, Tae-sik stands in front of a mirror semi-clothed and cuts off his hair. This scene functions as a double transformation, transforming Tae-sik from a passive bystander to an active agent of change within the diegesis, while at the same time signalling a major transformation in Won Bin’s acting career away from the feminised dependent masculinity upon which his reputation up until The Man From Nowhere was based. Although by the number of appreciative murmers and giggles that filled the auditorium at the time, I think that the mise-en-scene of hetero/homosexual desire encoded within the scene had more impact on the audience than its diegetic or extra-diegetic motivation and meaning. [Yup – he looked fit. I might have gasped in admiration myself – Ed]. Kim Sae-ron also puts in a powerful performance, both vulnerable and strong, as the child who never loses hope irrespective of her circumstances, and whose humanity awakens Tae-sik’s.
While the English title of the film places the emphasis on the mystery surrounding Tae-sik’s character (that is revealed towards the end of the film), the original Korean title emphasizes the relationship between Tae-sik and Si-mo. Ajeossi is the general term used for an adult man, loosely equivalent to ‘Sir’ in English, but also a term of respect between young and old which is part of the complicated system of hierarchy that exists in South Korea society1. As such it could be argued that Won Bin’s character has much in common the nameless men of the Spaghetti Western as best embodied by Clint Eastwood’s characters in Sergio Leone’s 1965-1966 ‘Dollars Trilogy’ (characters which are modelled on that of Mifune in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (用心棒, Japan: 1961)). Tae-sik is the man with no name, the morally ambiguous killer, a loner who comes to town, and becomes embroiled in a feud that has nothing to do with him. However unlike his Italian and Japanese counterparts, Tae-sik is redeemable and can be reintegrated into society: a redemption made possible through his humanising relationship with So-mi. So-mi functions as both a signifier of capitalist greed and contemporary consumerism in South Korean today – neglected by her mother, sold to work in a crack-den and ultimately doomed to be turned into a series of body parts for the black market – and also of South Korea’s traumatic past. Tae-sik understands this significance, when he takes So-mi for the reincarnation of his unborn daughter, murdered along with his wife in retaliation for his work as a special operative and assassin for the Korean government. This comingling of the personal and the political add depth to the sumptuous surfaces of The Man from Nowhere. Suffering and redemption are the intertwined themes of The Man From Nowhere, which unlike the other big revenge-drama of last year, I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다, Kim Ji-woon) offers hope for the future through the figure of the child, in a manner reminiscent of Italian neo-realism, whose presence represents the persistence of humanity even in the midst of inhumanity. While arguably a more apt title for the film would have been ‘the man with no name’ rather than ‘the man from nowhere’, it is after all a matter of semantics.
The Man From Nowhere was the highlight of the London Korean Film Festival for me, as well as being one of the best Korean films that I saw last year. While it was no surprise therefore that the film has garnered a number of awards, or indeed that it was the number one film at the South Korean box-office, it was a surprise that it took as long as it did for the film to get an international distributor. For fans of South Korean and/or action cinema, The Man From Nowhere is a film not to be missed.
I look forward to Director Lee’s next film with much anticipation.
- It will be remembered that “Ajeossi” is the way the girl in Oldboy addresses her father / lover