Hong Kong action fare of the 1980’s and 1990’s has long been praised by cult movie fans and critics alike for its distinctively stylized take on action sequences. The Chinese approach to staging fights and gun battles has since become part of action cinema’s lingua franca, right down to Hong Kong directors and fight choreographers being imported to the U.S. to beef up Hollywood’s action scenes.
However, those vintage Hong Kong action flicks weren’t just about staging: they often blended hard-hitting scenes of violence with the kind of delirious, heart-tugging emotionalism not seen since the days of Douglas Sirk. This style was dubbed Heroic Bloodshed: its blend of melodrama and brutality might sound like an odd mix on the surface but the two work together beautifully when blended properly. For proof, look no further than John Woo classics like The Killer or A Better Tomorrow.
Heroic Bloodshed has long since ceased to be a defining trend in Eastern action cinema but its influence pops up from time to time. A great recent example is The Man From Nowhere, a Korean film that retools this Chinese formula to smashing effect.
The plot is reminiscent of Man On Fire and focuses on the travails of a man and a child. The Man is Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin), a reclusive pawn shop owner. The Child is Jeong So-Mi (Sae-ron Kim), a spirited little kid who befriends the blocked-off Cha in spite of himself. Her friendly bravado is the cover for a miserable home life, which revolves around an inattentive drug addict mother. When the mother gets caught up in ripping off drug dealers, she inadvertantly drags Cha and So-Mi into her troubles. The dealers kill the mom and kidnap So-mi, using her as a pawn to manipulate Cha into becoming a patsy for the mom’s murder in a daring plan that also involves taking out a rival drug dealer.
Unfortunately for the dealers, they wildly underrated Cha. He’s got a dark past and a unique set of violent skills that make him the wrong person to screw with. He busts out of jail and set outs to find So-mi, who has been sold off into Korea’s criminal underworld. Along the way, the viewer learns about the tragedy that haunts Cha and makes him so determined to find his young friend.
The end result conjures up fond memories of the Heroic Bloodshed style: the plotline feels like the kind of thing John Woo might have done back in the day and it delivers both on the action and unabashed sentimentality fronts (the last five minutes goes for the audience’s tear ducts in an appealingly shameless way). However, it also mixes the stylized approach to action – best illustrated by a showdown in the bathroom of a packed club – with other scenes that take a grittier approach. The finale in particular is staggering in how ferocious its violence is, perhaps a reflection of how the hero’s darkest impulses have been brought up by his ordeal (look out for the memorably grim knife-fight that caps this scene).
The Man From Nowhere is also anchored by two bracing lead performances: Won Bin makes an excellent mysterious hero, playing his cards to close to the vest in the first half of the film and displaying a convincing sense of coolness under pressure in the action scenes. However, his character thaws over time and his work in the film’s latter scenes has a real emotional punch. Equally worthy of praise is Sae-ron Kim, who gives the audience a much-need identification figure in the brave yet quietly vulnerable young heroine. Like her co-star, she also delivers some powerfully emotional work in the film’s final scenes.
Finally, Jeong-beom Lee’s script and direction keep everything focused. He builds his storyline from archetypal elements but layers them together in a surprisingly complex style: there’s a big ensemble of characters that Lee manages with skill. He also structures the film’s tricky sequence of events in a lean, effective style. Most importantly, his direction blends sleek visuals and gritty content to potent effect – again, the final setpiece is the best example of this duality- and he gets colorful performances that keep the story engaging.
In short, The Man From Nowhere is a nice throwback to the days of Heroic Bloodshed, one that harbors a few surprises in its stew of classic elements. Anyone who yearns for the visceral/emotional one-two punch of classic Hong Kong action fare should check it out.