The 5th annual London Korean Film Festival kicked off on Friday night with the UK premiere of Lee Jeong-beom’s second feature The Man From Nowhere, apparently the first East Asian picture to receive the full red carpet treatment in Leicester Square. With the amount of consistently interesting films coming out of South Korea in recent years (including a couple of stunners which played at the London Film Festival last month), it proved a strange choice with which to open the festival, offering little to revitalise the formulaic genre conventions within which it is firmly entrenched. The highest grossing box office hit in its native country this year, the film did seem to go down well with the Korean contingent of the audience, lead actor Bin Won (unrecognisable from his turn as the simple murder suspect in Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, 2009) benefiting from a movie-star baggage lost on those unfamiliar with the more generic strands of Korean action cinema, seemingly content to settle for some emo-styled pouting and six-pack gazing in lieu of anything resembling charisma.
After the death of his pregnant wife, Cha Tae-sik (Bin Won) has turned his back on a life as a special forces agent, hiding from the world behind the counter of a pawnshop and the protective barrier of his fringe, hoping presumably that a Tony & Guy scout will one day find his way to him with some straighteners to pawn, and a future will present itself in which he’ll no longer need to work long, lonely hours to fund a hair product addiction that is clearly spiralling out of control. In the meantime, his only company is that of So-mi (Kim Sae-ron), a young girl with a junkie mother living in his building. She doesn’t complement him on his hair often enough, so the friendship is somewhat strained, but when So-mi’s mother steals some drugs from the local traffickers they come looking for her, kidnapping both her and her daughter and leaving Tae-sik with no choice but to renounce his fringe and embrace his violent past in order to save the girl, preparing himself the one way he knows how, with a self-administered haircut. Léon settled for a woolly hat.
Stodgily paced and with an unrelenting po-faced seriousness, the first act drags on forever, director Lee Jeong-beom struggling to inject tension or pace to proceedings. There are times when a promising set-piece presents itself, but they’re always bungled with slipshod editing and an almost total lack of wit or invention. When an organ-harvesting sub-plot rears its ugly head, the visceral sound design becomes dependent for effect, a momentarily interesting POV knife fight towards the end becoming more repellent than exciting through an insistence on every squelch of the blade being amplified ad nauseum, like a straight-to-dvd Van Damme movie directed by Eli Roth. Only one action beat impressed in the end, a shot of Tae-sik hurtling along a first floor corridor and through a glass window, the cameraman following him through the shattered pane and down onto the ground in an unbroken shot, but mostly it’s the usual mess of over-editing mistaken for slick. The conclusion with the kid wallows in a sentimentality that would’ve made even Chaplin groan, but by that point any engagement with either character or narrative proved to be just like Tae-sik’s hair, over-styled and hastily discarded.
The Man From Nowhere – South Korea – 2010 – 119 mins – Dir : Lee Jeong-beom