Monday, May 30, 2011

The Man From Nowhere - Ajeossi 2011

Director: Jeong Beom-lee

Rating: 3/5

Not the best revenge thriller out there but a solid addition to the genre.

The Man From Nowhere is another Korean revenge thriller in the vein of Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, et al. It takes the brutality of those films, but doesn’t really advance the genre in any clear way, apart from perhaps a slight step into the mainstream. When you see the freshly harvested eyeballs floating around in their glass casing though, you might disagree. The psychological intrigue element is a bit weak, lowering some of the thrill of the thriller side of things. Even if it feels a little like it is just there to tee up the set-pieces, the plotting works nicely enough. But, the saving grace is the action which gradually intensifies to a full on violent crescendo in the second-half. The film took in a hefty chunk of box-office takings in its native Korea, maybe attributable to the kidnapped child storyline, and heart-throb casting of the lead, which has allowed it to appeal to a wider audience.

Cha Tae Sik, or Ajeossi (mister) as he is referred to for the majority, works in a quiet pawn- shop. He has a dark past it seems, with rumors flying around that claim he was a sex offender or a criminal in his past. A young girl Soo-Mi, the daughter of a heroin addict, comes by his shop to pawn off stuff she’s shoplifted. Looking for someone to care for her, Soo-mi persuades Cha Tae Sik to become a begrudging friend. It is slightly reminiscent of the bond Jean Reno and Natalie Portman struck up in Leon, albeit less risque. When her mother gets caught up stealing heroin from some gangsters, Soo-mi is kidnapped, and it looks like she might end up as an involuntary black-market organ donor. Cha Tae Sik without his knowledge has inadvertently been holding the stolen drugs, in the bottom of a camera Soo-mi’s mother pawned to him. The double-crossing gangsters promise if he returns the drugs, the girl will go free. Things are never going to be that simple though, are they?

Won Bin in the lead role of Cha Tae-Sik left me a little unsure. The role was originally intended to be for a 60 year old, that figure then became a 40 year old and then became the handsome youthful Won Bin. The role was rewritten for him after he expressed an interest and at times his youthfulness does seem to jar slightly with the story. The film might have had a bit more substance with an older lead at the reins. Bin doesn’t do anything wrong per se, in fact he does a lot of things right. His hero is morally unshakable, permanently serious and grimacing, and has some legitimate reasons for the fact he is a lean mean fighting machine. However, he looks like someone you’d expect to see singing in auto-tune and mincing about in a pop video, as opposed to cracking heads in a vengeful rage. His hair flops all over the place, in a way that feels as if each follicle has been painstakingly adjusted to perfection, not exactly your standard blood-thirsty killer. In one scene, illustrating to us that he now means business, he shaves it all off whilst eye-fucking himself in the mirror. Action-wise though he is on the money, maybe not quite bringing the sheer muscular weight that others can, but overall it’s of a high standard.

Soo-mi the elementary school student, played by Kim Se-Ron, is very good. She gives a performance with an emotional maturity far beyond her years. The film does its best to steer clear of the kind of simplistic “point camera and cry” characterization, required of most child actors. The Spielberg-esque lost child narrative works well but as the action builds, by the second act it loses its significance a touch as Soo-mi’s story gets put on the back burner. It could have done with being a more constant element of the film rather than sandwiching the main content as it does. The team of police who are tracking the gangsters, despite being there from the start are a bit too peripheral, too. Their presence feels tacked on, under-developed, and ever so slightly unnecessary. The only role they really fulfill is to offer a bit of back story on the main character.

As is often the case with such morally black and white films the best parts tend to gravitate towards the bad guys, who eat up the screen safe in the knowledge that moral equilibrium is being restored single-handedly by Cha Tae Sik. These guys are about as amoral as it gets, exploiting elementary school kids, kidnapping, drug-trafficking, and organ harvesting. They are incredibly violent, and even in their down-time are date-raping girls working at their clubs. The stand-outs from a solid bunch are the deplorable brothers Jong-suk and Man-sik who get increasingly more and more reprehensible as the minutes tick by. Amusingly, they don’t really understand why Cha Tae Sik is gunning for them and keep referring to him as the pawn-shop psycho. Kim Hee Woon (Man-Sik) just edges it overall as the funny, angry boss that snares up the hero in his gang-land power-play. He has some good lines and grandstands in a pleasingly extravagant way, but as Cha Tae Sik explains, “Guys living for tomorrow have no chance against someone living for today.”

The action was a bit hard to sum up here. At first, in the shadow of other entries into the genre it seems a little tame (by Korean standards naturally), but before long nails are being shot into peoples legs and henchmen are being used as human shields. Despite not being the sole factor upon which films like this are measured, the violence of an ultra-violent film is obviously very important and strives to be memorable. Oldboy had the video-game like never-ending 2D fight section, the recent I Saw the Devil had that insane 360 degree, in car, stab-fest, and rest assured The Man from Nowhere has a few tricks up its own sleeve, too. The men’s room scene stands out as Cha Tae-Sik closes in on his target and extracts information by getting one of the gangsters to stab himself in the shoulder. In another our protagonist is ejected from a building by a top floor window falling down into the safety of the netting of a golfing range. But the piece de la resistance is the final confrontation with an unflinching energy that feels like something that would be equally at home on a Playstation as a cinema screen.

Hand-held camera work can be a bit over-used, even distracting, as if a director is reminding you that he’s there overseeing everything. Yet, it feels entirely appropriate here, capturing the rawness of these moments and there are some other little flourishes spread throughout the film The fight scenes use some excellent point of view shots, edited into the melee, putting you into the eyes of one of the combatants and illustrating the speed of the action. This is amplified by some brilliant use of sound effects, lacing each fight with bone crunches, the whoosh of air being swiped by a knife, and the clink of steel. There is one shot as well that had me wondering how on earth they managed it. Cha Tae Sik is running away from the police with the camera following close behind him. He launches himself out of a shut window, and you wait for the cut to the next shot which just never comes. The camera follows him down seamlessly and takes off with him running in what feels like one continuous shot, though I have a sneaking suspicion it might not have actually been. Camera trickery or not, it is inventive and exciting stuff.

This is a decent Korean revenge flick, no doubts about it. It isn’t up there with the greats that have, despite their extreme content become household names across the film world. It isn’t even the best one this year, that honor goes to the far superior I Saw the Devil, which played interestingly in the grey area between hero and villain. The lost child story-line works but isn’t as captivating as some of the bizarreness that has made up the backbone of other examples of the genre. This is slick stuff however, and put together so smoothly that you might not even care or notice. Revenge film fans will lap this up as the cool, stylish film it is, and who knows? Its slightly more accessible story-line, and hunky star might even draw in a few new believers.

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