The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 (2010)
Back in the 1980s and 90s, there were a run of films featuring “action stars” like Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Let’s take Nowhere to Run (1993) as an example. Van Damme is a convict newly released. He wanders into a situation on a farm and defends the widowed mother and two kids from certain death at the hands of a rapacious property developer. The essence of such stories is always a man possessed of amazing fighting skills, often with a military background, who defends others from harm (this can include the environment and animals as in On Deadly Ground (1994)). Being Hollywood, there’s always a strong theme of righteousness about the hero. In most films, he’s not a vigilante and is always seen to have a higher moral code than those he fights. Even when the hero is a “criminal”, i.e. has been convicted of a serious offence, there’s usually a backstory to show he’s not so bad. This is not exactly to excuse his past or what he does. Simply there’s a lot of whitewash used to cover up the fact such heroes usually leave a significant number of victims in their wake either dead or with what would be permanent disabilities. Why? There’s a fundamental paradox in operation. Hollywood crafts myths based on the idea of the hero. By definition, the majority of heroes are expected to be “good” people or they are bad people who redeem themselves through their actions. This makes it inconvenient to show heroes with feet of clay. Hollywood therefore squared the circle by sanitising the violence on screen. We would see all manner of mayhem and death, whether by major exchanges of bullets leaving rooms and/or entire building shredded or destroyed, but it was rare for us to be shown raw brutality. If such images did appear on-screen, the “bad” guys were the ones responsible thereby making our hero look better (if not good) by comparison.
The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 (2010) is a magnificent film from Korea playing in the same sandpit, but it embraces realism to a greater degree. All the action revolves around the tension between a major gang which deals both in drugs and organs for transplants, and the police. As part the drug distribution network, there are clubs used as post offices where content changes hand to move down for sale on the streets. One such club is staked out by the police led by Detective Kim Chi-Gon (Kim Tae-Hun) but, before they can make the arrests, Jung Hyo-Jeong (Kim Hyo-Seo), a dancer at the nightclub, tasers the intermediary and runs off with the heroin. Sadly, this dancer is a serious addict and, although she has a boyfriend who helped her, the heroin is mostly intended as her stash. Not surprisingly, the leaders of the gang are outraged their drugs have been stolen. The police are upset their plans to follow the drugs through the distribution chain have been frustrated. The dancer has a young daughter named Jung So-Mi (Kim Sae-Ron). She’s already on the verge of becoming a criminal, acting violently to her peers in and out of school, stealing from shops, and so on. The only one who even vaguely takes any notice of her is Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin) who runs a low-life pawnshop.
One day, he takes a bag containing a camera and other items from So-Mi. He does not care that she probably stole it from her useless mother. He keeps it and “lends” her a few dollars. Unfortunately this bag has the stolen heroin sewn into the lining. In due course, the heavies led by Ramrowan (Thanayong Wongtrakul) turn up, take away mother and daughter, and prevail on Cha Tae-Sik to hand over the bag. Ramrowan immediately identifies Cha Tae-Sik as “different” and the gang bosses decide to frame him to distract attention from themselves. They separate mother and daughter, killing the mother and harvesting all her organs. They plant her body in the trunk of a car which is given to Cha Tae-Sik with instructions to go to the headquarters of a rival gang. The police are called and Cha Tae-Sik is arrested along with all the other gang members. Particular attention focuses on him when the body is found. There’s a nice joke about using the Americans to get around Korean security systems for classifying sensitive information. This enables the police to make an identification but it’s only later we see the backstory in flashbacks to understand how Cha Tae-Sik came to be in this rundown place. The film now falls into the traditional mould of our self-motivated hunter escaping police custody and tracking down the gang to rescue the girl. On the way, there are some delightful sequences, one of the most interesting explaining how the Chinese gangs use disposable children to work for them. There are also some terrific fights, with two against Ramrowan who proves a formidable opponent.
So with the caveat that there’s quite a lot of blood spilled and some creepy moments involving human organs and their extraction, The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 is sensationally good. Won Bin is genuinely malevolent and particularly dangerous because he no longer cares whether he survives. Kim Sae-Ron does a good job as So-Mi. Her role is a lot more than as a perky kid who has to look scared a lot of the time. Thanayong Wongtrakul is a thoughtful “villain” while all the gang leaders are the usual arrogant and not very bright thugs. At every level, The Man From Nowhere or Ahjeosshi or 아저씨 is worth seeing.