Myung-se Lee, South Korea, 1999, 112 min.
This post is part of New Korean Cinema’s Korean Blogathon.
Nowhere to Hide has an interesting reference to a potentially-true event in Korean history, which I will reveal a little later. But that isn’t the only thing that makes this film a fascinating addition to the world of Korean Film.
This film is all about the style. Two cops who are hunting down a dangerous assassin (Sung-kee Ahn) after a murder. Who the assassin murdered or why he is so important is never explained. The story is just a structure used to hold the varied and imaginative set-pieces that director Mying-se Lee comes up with.
An example: The opening shot of Detective Woo (Joong-Hoon Park) walking towards a gang hideout. In stark black and white with pounding music we follow him into an abandoned warehouse. Joong-Hoon plays his character with an almost animalistic demeanor. He walks like a bulldog, head down and forward, shifty and intense. In a warehouse he confronts a dozen bad guys and proceeds to fight them in all-out combat. This choreography of brutality is strangely artistic. The scene is full of stylish slow-motion, full color cartoon freeze frames, and dynamic camera movements that could never happen in real life.
Inter-cut with that scene is another in which we meet Woo’s partner (Dong-gun Jang). He is not as crazed, but just as formidable in combat, beating up his own gang of baddies with a wooden sword.
As the detectives get closer and closer to their quarry, we are treated to one entertaining, over-the-top set-piece after another. Each one trying (sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding), to subvert or elevate the viewer’s perception of the medium.
There is a rooftop fight scene that is shown only in shadows. A chase scene on foot where the camera tracks the participants at full speed in one long steady take. A scene during a stake-out, where the food the cops wish they were eating appears in thought-bubbles above their heads. A camera gliding through wall after wall as the cops invade an apartment. And the final hyper-stylized showdown in the rain and mud.
It’s a cacophony of effects that work well individually, jangle when combined, and sometimes reach the right rhythm and pitch that make the film hum with a “this is what is possible with cinema”-vibe. If nothing else, the film tries it’s hardest to give you something new and beautiful to watch, and that has to be admired.
Now to the potentially-true historical event that I was alluding to. There is a great scene in the film when the assassin, Sungmin, kills his victim. The tone is dream-like and sad and you can sense the sorrow that Sungmin feels. The whole thing is played to the tune of “Holiday” by the Bee-Gees, which is the last song you would think would play in a scene like this, but it fits perfectly.
The story that my friend told me is that many years ago in South Korea there was a crazed shooter who took a group of people hostage in a public building. After a tense stand-off, he agreed to surrender only if the police would play “Holiday” by the Bee-Gees for him. So they played the recording through some speakers, and he gave himself up peacefully. I couldn’t find any details, so if anyone knows if it is true or not please let me know. Either way, that story has always given the scene, and the whole film, a little more emotional weight.
This film wins the award “Best Use of a Bee-Gees Song“ for the assassination scene that manages to link dream-like images with the sadness of the character and the sadness in the song. It’s the highlight of the film.