★★★★ / ★★★★
A two-month police stakeout goes wrong when Hyo-jeong (Hyo-seo Kim), an exotic dancer in the club that is being surveilled, steals a heroin sample from a one of the drug lord’s henchmen. She figures that she and her boyfriend can make some money off the heroin, but it is only a matter of time until she is tracked down and kidnapped–along with her daughter, So-mi (Sae-ron Kim), who has befriended a recluse who runs a pawnshop. Tae-sik (Bin Won) mostly keeps to himself but since he has gotten somewhat close to the little girl, he feels it is his duty, especially with his military background, to rescue her.
Movies about someone, most often a man in law enforcement or has had prior experience in the military, rescuing a child from grave danger is a dime a dozen, but “Ajeossi,” written and directed by Jeong-beom Lee, proves that just because a template is familiar does not mean that the specific story being told cannot rise above the rest. Written with intelligence, sensitivity, and a few genuine surprises, it is a first-rate action film that schools even the most bombastic works with shootouts galore.
It is a wise decision that the film does not comprise of only chase scenes. While they are very thrilling when they do occur, they might have held little meaning if we did not have a clear picture of what was at stake. The first third is simple but critical. It focuses on interactions among isolated groups: the cops on the verge of cornering criminals, the drug dealers and henchmen who think they are too smart–and too rich with connections to spare–for the system, and of course the innocent people who get caught in the battle between the two camps. There is lyricism in the way Tae-sik gets sucked into the underworld that he chooses to stay away from.
Although an action picture on the surface, it functions as a thriller in the way it evolves. We get the flying bullets, screams of pain, squeals of horror from bystanders, and bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat, but it is the bleak developments in the plot that dares us to keep watching. I admired that the material actually takes the time to show how a criminal group might work–not just through the obvious-looking bad guys but also through people who we might not expect to have darkness in them. It makes for a most compelling watch.
It is interesting that Tae-sik’s full capacity to inflict violence is not seen until halfway through. I appreciated that even though it is an action film and we know what to expect, the screenplay chooses to tease us nonetheless by jumping to a less suspenseful scene–or an amusing one–before someone gets very badly hurt. Then it returns when the deed is done and the former tough guys are reduced to cowering fools.
“The Man from Nowhere” meets the highest standards of an action-thriller because the writer-director understands how to play with his audience’s emotions. The way it forces our expectations from, say, wanting to see a bad guy get his comeuppance by being beaten raw to wishing all of it to stop completely are executed with control and elegance. Although the violence holds a level of thrill, the undercoat of sadness in lives being wasted or lost is always there.