WTF ASIA 67: The Man from Nowhere (2010)

Sometimes, you just have hit the ground running after having jumped out of a closed window.

Available in AustraliaCanada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and maybe some other countries. Approximately 120 minutes.


The movie starts out with a sting operation that goes wrong. The police are trying to catch a gangster during a drug deal at a nightclub. They catch him, but the actual deal did not go through, so they will have to let him go the next morning. None of them realize it yet, but one of the nightclub dancers stole the drugs.

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The dancer, Hyo-jeong, hides the drugs in a camera bag and drops it off with the pawnshop owner who lives next door to her. Well, most of the drugs, anyways; she is going to shoot up a little of it later on. She threatens the pawnshop owner with castration if he goes near her nine-year-old daughter, but then starts flirting with him. Yeah, she is a character.

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Of course, the girl, So-mi, has taken a shine to the owner, perhaps seeing him as the father figure whom she never had and the only person who is halfway nice to her, even if he is completely distant and looks like he probably has been to prison. Living with her mother and the type of scumbags whom she deals with has turned So-mi into a bit of a troubled child with a penchant for stealing, and maybe the pawnshop owner is as close to something stable that she can find. The pawnshop owner has closed himself off to the world, still in mourning over a woman who has died a few years ago. Yet, So-mi has sort of managed to break through to him, even though he does not really show it. But when he ignores her when she gets in trouble for stealing, she is heartbroken, her worthlessness confirmed.

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So-mi arrives home to find a man putting a hairdryer to her mother’s leg. The pawnshop owner arrives home to find that a couple of thugs have broken into his shop. He beats one of them down (the one from the failed sting), but another one takes his place, a Thai man who speaks only English for some reason. The pawnshop owner is ordered by phone to give them Hyo-jeong’s camera bag. When the pawnshop owner refuses, he hears So-mi shouting on the other end. The gangster threatens to kill both her and her mother if they don’t get the camera bag. The pawnshop owner gives it up and they find the drugs. The Thai gangster shoots his beaten colleague, puts a cellphone on the table, and leaves. The pawnshop owner runs after them, only to see So-mi being driven away. He tries calling the cops, but they start insulting him when he declines to give his own address. If he wants to see So-mi again, he will have to do more than return the drugs.

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There is something to be said about a movie that is simply well-done and effective. It is an action movie, with a good amount of gunplay, knife fights, chase scenes, and hand-to-hand combat. Almost nothing in this movie is new or innovative, particularly when compared with the Korean serial killer movie I Saw The Devil, which had come out a week later. If the description above reminds you of at least two Luc Besson movies, then you are not entirely wrong. Yet, despite the clichés, the somewhat overly-complicated storyline, and somewhat predictable plot twists, there was something about this movie that kept me so much more invested in it than I was with I Saw The Devil, which lost me around the time that I realized what the particular character twist was. When watching The Man From Nowhere, there were so many times that I could tell myself that something was cheesy or a cheat or nonsensical or unimaginative or emotionally manipulative, but it did not matter. The movie overcomes all of its flaws by the sheer force of it being just that good.

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When they want to, South Korean moviemakers can be pretty good at bringing out extreme emotions from audiences. Anger, horror, sadness, joy. A lot of the times, however, this is done through manipulation that a jaded person can see through. In this movie, however, I think that it is the sincerity and the purity of its sincerity that blots out any cynical discussion of unoriginality. There is no winking to the camera. This is a movie with a lot of heart. And I think that that is why the movie held off on showing the pawnshop owner getting into fights on screen until there was an emotional charge behind his fighting. It is so much easier to surrender to the heart than it is to maintain the aloofness that it takes to point out the problems in this movie. So why bother being bothered?

The Korean title for the movie is Ajeossi, which translates roughly as Mister, Uncle, or Older Man. The pawnshop owner (the movie reveals his name over a third of the way through, but the people at the crux of the story never use his name, referring to him as just “him” or “pawnshop” is hardly that much older than most of the main characters except for So-mi, who refers to him as that. That already suggests that the movie is about him through her eyes, even though the movie eventually reveals things about him that she doesn’t know about, and probably never will. The (very misleading) poster plays up their relationship as father and daughter, a bond that was formed not by blood, but by shared loneliness. The movie turns this thieving little girl into an extremely sympathetic character simply through her situation and her emotional sincerity. The movie also turns the pawnshop owner into a sympathetic character through some backstory that may have been unnecessary and manipulative, but works nevertheless. So when she is kidnapped, it makes perfect sense that he will do anything to rescue her. He has no actual obligation to save her, but he needs to. And I needed to see him succeed.

I should probably point out that the character of So-mi was played by Kim Sae-ron, who was the protagonist of A Brand New LifeThe Man From Nowhere was her third movie, and she had already cemented her brand as playing a troubled girl in a horrible situation, though this situation is much worse than the one in her debut. And, once again, she is really good, taking what should be an easy sympathy sponge and giving her humanity to offset what could seem like a lurid exploration of the criminal underworld that she travels through. I am not sure whether this was her true breakout role or if she had already staked her claim in A Brand New Life, but she has recently revealed that she experienced bullying at school after this movie came out because her schoolmates could not understand how she was becoming a star by acting in movies that they were not allowed to watch. That must have been horrible for her, but she seems to have turned out all right.

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As a sidenote, I did not actually realize it the first time around, but the movie made pretty good use of the fact that guns are quite rare in South Korea. Sure, the police had guns, but very few others. This made it pretty important when certain characters get guns, show guns, or use them on others. The Thai character is the only one who regularly has a gun and I wonder if his insistence on speaking English meant that he was supposed to be American. In any case, the rarity of guns contrasts with American movies where anyone could have a gun or in an Asian movie where anyone unrealistically could have a gun, and I am not sure how a proposed American remake would deal with that. This also justified the use of martial arts and knives, which are much more readily available. Also, the behind the scenes special implies that at least one of the knives used in a fight was real when it accidentally flew out of the shot and got stuck in a wall on the other side of the room, not too far from a couple of the crewmembers.

If you want something new or different or out there, then The Man from Nowhere is probably not for you. If you want a movie that sucks you in and takes you on a ride, then this just might be for you. Put your genre savvy cynicism to the side for two hours and strap in.

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WTF ASIA 68: Kahaani (India: approx. 2012, approx. 122 minutes)


Available in AustraliaCanadathe United Kingdomthe United States, and maybe some other countries.


WTF ASIA 69: Solanin (Japan: approx. 2010, approx. 126 minutes)

Wikipedia sort of…