Taken by Taken (2008): The Swordsman (2020) The Man From Nowhere (2010)
The past week was super busy and that will continue. To be frank, I haven’t felt any inclination to start any new K dramas. Nothing of late looks like a must-watch. I tried with Our Blooming Youth but that characters and the premise failed to grab me. Unlike other more recent sageuks, it lacks authenticity and worse still… dare I say it, it looks like it was done on a shoestring budget. In comparison to C dramas of this kind of which there are many, it feels rather bland — leaves me with a “been there done it” first impression.
While having a lazy moment, it occurred to me that I’ve never seen Jang Hyuk’s 2020 movie The Swordsman although I’ve been a fan of his for almost as long as I’ve been avidly watching K dramas. So I took a peek and even though the subs are woeful, there’s not really that much dialogue or sufficient dialogue to make a huge difference in my overall appreciation of the film. It’s an action story first and foremost set during the aftermath of King Gwanghae’s reign. Even though it claims to be a historical film, it owes far more to Hollywood and wuxia more than anything else. In fact it doesn’t take long for the realisation to hit home that this is a Joseon version of the 2008 film Taken starring the great Liam Neeson.
For the handful of people left on the planet who haven’t seen Taken, it’s about an ex-CIA agent who on a call to his daughter Kim holidaying in Paris, becomes a phone witness to her kidnapping by Albanian human traffickers. Before long he’s in the City of Love and collecting scalps in the most spectacular fashion leaving a trail of destruction. Anybody who has seen it will no doubt remember Liam Neeson’s phone monologue to his daughter’s captor in a calm almost menacing manner.
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”
Something similar happens in The Swordsman. Jang Hyuk’s character, a former king’s guard now living in the mountain minding his own business. But due to an old injury his eyesight is deteriorating so his good-hearted daughter Tae Ok drags him down to the hub of civilisation and after a series of hoop jumps finds herself making a deal with a broker about some all important cure for her father. As is the case with the original, she falls prey to sex slavers. All this transpires in a backdrop of Joseon, Chinese and Manchurian geopolitics with Joseon on the losing end largely because of corrupt leadership. Militarily Joseon is weak and the default position is to capitulate to a stronger neighbour and ally with one against the other. Daughter gets inadvertently caught up in all of this and so Swordsman Dad jumps into the fray without a second thought. The moment the swordsman unsheathes his blade all hell breaks loose and diplomacy be damned. Frankly the audience couldn’t care less either because the villains are evil incarnate.
Certainly the story isn’t very original but it does have some rather exciting action sequences featuring Tae Yul and his opponents. I can’t say I’m a fan of the swordplay here being more accustomed to more traditional Hong Kong and mainland choreography but if it’s slash and turn with plenty of blood spatter you’re looking for, there’s definitely a goodly amount on offer. The plot is basic, more or less taking its cues from the Taken mould. The cinematography on the other hand is worth writing home about.
While I was in the mood I became curious about MDL’s recommendation of The Man From Nowhere (2010) which stars Won Bin, an actor I’ve heard about but never seen in anything. And no wonder. He hasn’t acted in anything since 2010. But he’s very nice to look at especially when his hair’s properly trimmed and he had all the makings of a major action star except that he’s obviously been busy raising a family to care. In the looks department he reminds me of Lee Jin-uk, another actor that I like.
Won Bin takes on the role of a pawnshop owner who is somewhat friendly with the little girl who lives in his block of flats. Her mother, an exotic dancer and heroin addict takes off with a packet of the white stuff and brings all kinds of nasty — and I mean nasty — types to her door step. Not only are these scumbags trafficking in drugs, they are also dabbling with organ harvesting. Predictably mayhem ensues because these creatures don’t take kindly to others stealing their commodities. What the mother does, the daughter pays for. They are both “taken” and it is up to Won Bin’s Tae-shik to get his act together to rescue mother and daughter from the clutches of a psychopathic cartel who don’t hold back where violence is concerned.
The Man From Nowhere is far more brutal and more gory than its predecessors with at least one instance of horrifying nudity. There’s a strong John Wick feel about it as Tae-shik destroys his opponents with terrifying fervour. Tae-shik is the self-imposed loner with a sob story that no one takes a second look at. Until he cuts his hair — a symbolic moment — and finds his “redemption” by mowing down the baddies in unstoppable haste.
Although the original Taken was a straightforward action revenge plot, it hits the spot particularly at the box office and seems to have spawned several adaptations in its wake worldwide. Its popularity shouldn’t be any surprise because a man who is devoted enough to family to leave a trail of bodies fits into the beloved masculine warrior archetype. And he has just cause against thugs who kidnap and sell unsuspecting women even if he breaks all the societal rules to get the job done. He is above it all. Why? Because they started it and in some instances the official law enforcers have turned a blind eye to or are complicit in illicit activities. He has the skills but more importantly he has the will to act. The audience senses that a man like Bryan Mills and those from his tribe are patterned after Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry doing what no one else will or can.