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Spotlight on South Korean Cinema: Nowhere to Hide

I look at Lee Myung-se’s 1999 masterpiece Nowhere to Hide for part three of my Spotlight on South Korean Cinema series.

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The earliest film I show when teaching S. Korean Cinema is Lee Myung-se’s proto-New Wave classic Nowhere to Hide (1999), a movie misleadingly — and tragically — marketed as a John Woo-style action extravaganza by its distributor upon its U.S. theatrical release in 2000. (The confusion engendered by the marketing undoubtedly at least partially accounts for its surprisingly low aggregate rating of 44% on Rotten Tomatoes.) I believe this film could have been more successfully pitched to the art house crowd since more accurate and fruitful points of comparison can be made between it and early Jean-Luc Godard or the playful/surreal yakuza movies of Seijun Suzuki. While Nowhere to Hide can technically be described as an “action movie,” one should hasten to add the caveat that its director is less interested in action as physical violence than in the aesthetic properties of action as movement. Lee’s thoughtfully stylized, experimental approach can perhaps best be gleaned by a quote that appeared in the film’s original press-kit: “In a Monet painting the theme is not the water lily. The water lily is just the object to paint light upon. As it floats, we see its reflection on the water, and that is what we call painterly. My intention is the same. In this film, I wanted to show the filmic. The story and the characters are not the main focus of my film. Movement is. Movement enters the other elements in this film to create kinetic action.” The man isn’t kidding: Lee studied footage of everything from animal movement to World Cup soccer matches in order to figure out how to best capture his performers in motion.

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Since the story and the characters are not Lee’s focus, they won’t be mine here either. Instead, I’d like to hone in on one specific scene in the film, a celebrated sequence in which an assassin plies his trade in the rain to the strains of the Bee-Gees’ “Holiday.” (This early scene serves as the catalyst for what little plot there is — with the rest of the movie essentially boiling down to one long chase between two cops and the killer.) The scene begins with a montage of shots depicting people milling about on Inchon’s “40 Steps,” a large public staircase outside of a shopping mall. Lee employs freeze-frames at the scene’s beginning to draw viewer attention to specific details in the location (the saturated yellow of the autumn leaves on the ground and an overhead shot of a boy covering his head with a newspaper indicate the time of year and the weather) while a title informs viewers of the exact time of day (“12:10:58 P.M.”). A car pulls up to the location and the passenger-side window rolls down to reveal a sinister-looking character within: Sung-min (Ahn Sung-kee), the assassin, is wearing a trench-coat and sunglasses and smoking a cigarette while “casing” the location. Through the reflection of his glasses we see him insert a CD into the car stereo. The soft-psychedelic pop of the Bee-Gees’ “Holiday” (which, in case you didn’t know, is their greatest song ever) begins as the camera tracks alongside of the swirling leaves outside of the car. The rain starts to fall harder and passersby scatter in every direction seeking shelter. This allows Lee to introduce, with maximum effectiveness, the character of Sung-min’s “mark” — a man dressed in a suit who stands outside a doorway midway up the steps and calmly stares at the rain while pedestrians around him continue to scurry for cover.

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The scene ratchets up in intensity when Sung-min exits the car and walks slowly but purposefully through the downpour, glowering under the sunglasses that he’s still wearing, as Barry Gibb’s voice plaintively wails on the soundtrack: “Millions of eyes can see / Yet why am I so blind? / When the someone else is me / It’s unkind, it’s unkind.” At the same moment that the mark opens up and raises a black umbrella, Sung-min jumps in front of him while brandishing a long knife. In alternating close-ups between the two men, Lee shows Sung-min bring down the knife in slow-motion, cutting the umbrella in half. The mark then defensively raises his hand, which Sung-min slashes with his knife in a second economical blow. Lee again shows alternating close-ups of the men — this time with blood pouring down the mark’s face as viewers realize only in hindsight that the knife’s first blow must have connected with the top of the character’s head. The mark drops the briefcase he has been holding and falls over dead. Sung-min picks up the case (the film’s MacGuffin, we never know what it contains) and beats a hasty retreat in the direction from which he came. The minions of Sung-min and his victim soon engage in a fight on the steps as the screen dramatically fades to red. We then see Sung-min’s car fleeing the scene as the brothers Gibb continue to sing that catchy melody: “Dee dee da dee dee dee . . .” The final shot in the scene is an extreme close-up of the mark’s hand dripping blood onto the rain-spattered steps. In what may be an homage to Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, the camera pans across the character’s lifeless hand and ends on his wristwatch where the second hand is still ticking mechanically on.

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This entire murder scene is less than four minutes long and yet I would argue it is more impressive as an “action set piece” than anything to have come out of Hollywood in the past quarter century. Other than describing it in detail, I am also at somewhat of a loss to explain exactly why the scene is so powerful. All I know is that, like many comparable scenes from great S. Korean movies, it is an example of pure cinema — where color, form, movement (by both the characters within the frame as well as from the camera itself), optical effects, editing and music (the minor-key song contributes to the haunting quality of the overall tone) all combine to create an experience as unforgettable as it is ineffable. Even more impressive is how Lee’s film contains several other set pieces that are almost equally effective, including a suspenseful chase through several cars on a moving passenger train and a climactic fight scene, also shot in the rain, scored to an instrumental version of “Holiday” (a scene that, incidentally, was totally ripped off by the Wachowski siblings for their third Matrix movie). If, as I speculated months ago, the golden age of South Korean cinema truly has come to an end, cinema lovers will still always have this period to look back on; much as Rick Blaine will always have Paris, so too will we always have the great Korean films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, prominently including Nowhere to Hide, the cinematic equivalent of a masterful Impressionist painting.

The full sequence described above can be seen in the YouTube clip below. But you should see the whole movie:

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

17 responses to “Spotlight on South Korean Cinema: Nowhere to Hide

  • zhuyu187

    Throughout the whole movie, the last scene was the most impressive. Differing to Hollywood movie, Asian directors are more focused on details. Through actors’ expression and action, I am able to know characters’ inside world. As a movie from 1999, the picture is very good, especially at the beginning of the rain, describing killing, the picture is very beautiful, and the appropriate soundtrack is very pleasant. But the story is attractive enough for me. Honestly, the part which interested most was when the background music. It played an important part on developing the plot as well. What I understand is that, actually the movie No Where To Hide is not only on behalf of the Ahn sung Ki’s role, the role of Choi Ji woo and most important two other characters’ police role, faced with criminals and crime, is it possible for them to hide when comes to problems? Can they escape from those things only because crimes might kill them? In the film, the police are the worst job. Yes, you can do what you what such as drinking coffee and reading newspaper during work; at the same time working hard, but why most police choose the second one? That’s what common people cannot understand.
    As far as I concerned, this movie is a really love-it-or-hate-it one. I searched the rate online both on Asian and American website. Obviously, Americans are more refer to this style of movie. On the other side, most Asians thought it was boring and pointless. However, I watched it twice in two nights without the benefit of English subtitles, instead, only Korean did help me to understand the meaning of movie better by listening to characters’ tone. Even without understandable dialogue, it’s funny, exciting, and even a bit challenging. It’s nice to see a film with artistic merit that isn’t afraid to be entertaining. The film’s unusual fight scenes are really worth seeing; at times it appears that the director just let the actors fight while the camera ran, sometimes for up to a minute at a time without any cuts. I can’t recommend it enough. I imagine being able to understand it could only be an improvement.
    At the end, I want to quote one sentence from the movie, “You don’t think this is your normal cops & robber film do you?”.

  • shao jun huang

    This film to me was dependence, or let me said it did not explain enough to the audiences. The beginning of the film was unforgettable, and it the first shot of the male protagonist Detective Woo’s personality that reflected the way he found out his target. It made the audience fall in the thought that Detective Woo was a rascal, but he was a little better one. Detective Kim looked like a justicial guy compared to Detective Woo. He complained a lot to stand by to long for waiting their target, but he was enjoy working with Detective Woo. In the entire film, Detective Woo was doing two things, chase and fight. Detective Woo started the chase with the bad guy he knew. He caught the bad guy then beat him. Got the clues, and moved to the other bad guy. Repeated the steps and finally, he found out then center, Sungmin. By looking back how Detective Woo got the clues, beside his identity, he’s a rascal. Is the film trying to say people can competitive success by means? Or the film trying to say people should work step by step to reach the goal? However, Detective Woo wasn’t bad at all, he just a hard worker.

  • Cristina Rosas

    I agree with your post how the film should have appealed to the artistic crowd since it is a very creative film in the way the director makes his shots. Each scene is different. His mission is obvious. He wanted movement to be his focus and he did an excellent job also. The audience can really get lost in the scenes in part because the are very entertaining and are very unique. If I could pick my most favorite scene in the whole film I would pick the scene where Sung-min joins his wife in the bar\restaurant and the smoke appears. This was to me an introduction to the the kind of film technique going to be used in the film. I’ve never seen anything like it. It really emphasized the characters and their roles. It brought a villainess aura and to me solidified the mind of role Sung-ri would play throughout the flm. As to the suitcase I didn’t even remember about it until you mentioned it. Now I see how it symbolizes the directors ambition to direct under the bold use of dominantly movement. He succeeded in drawing attention off the characters and more towards the appreciation of the film in its totality with its artistic beauty .

  • Mandukhai Damdinjav

    I agree and disagree that this film Nowhere to hide should appealed only to the artistic crowed. This movie should be let seen to the normal cinema viewers, and the artistic cinema viewers. Even if the tomato rating was negative, we shouldn’t just trust any ratings this simply. We shouldn’t rate, or judge movie that someone has made. Every person is different to their taste, but largely now days people check ratings, and then they watch a movie, which is big mistake. A lot people will miss a great movie like Nowhere to hide. The music, the character’s voices, and slow motion like, or comic like freezes show the hidden elements in this move, which we dont often see now days in cinemas. When it comes to police work it is very messy, and a though job. This movie also showed the work of the hidden forces behind the regular police officers we see every day. My most favorite part was the end scene as well because it shows a hint of realism in this movie. Detective Woo, who fought despite being beaten over and over again, he kept going until the police force came by. Yet another scene stroked me more than this scene was when Detective Woo visits his partner in hospital, and talks to him. Saying that they didnt even mention them, but still they caught he bad guy. It is a great movie worth watching, and I learned that many filming technic has a big influence, how it shows the theme, character, and emotions of a film.

  • aspic/maiap

    I have been wondering why Lee Myung-se decided to use the Bee Gees’ “Holiday”. I am not entirely sure but I think the song is about uncertainty in life’s direction and our perception of things. The cheery tempo with morbid lyrics seems like it coincides with the general outlook of a humorous and violent film. Although the meaning could be inconsequential. I thought it was a funny choice. I could be reading into it too much or incorrectly.
    Anyway, the scene you describe above is wonderful in its composition, movement and color. The movie had so many visually stunning sequences. I absolutely recognize the directors influence from impressionist painters. I think most good art, whether a painting or a film, should have that foundation of aesthetic power without the need for narrative. Although I believe the story is vague it is enriched with its own playful worth.There is visual humor as well as ridiculous and manipulative dialogue. All the lies and sendoffs the characters tell each other is a good tool to mimic the repetitive nature of a hunt or chase. I thought that was fascinating that Lee Myung-se watched nature documentaries and soccer matches to imitate feral and aggressive movement. Even if we have developed cities and building and police forces we all came from this place of basic survival. It still runs our lives but the motives look different in some ways.

  • Julie Vera

    I am really surprised that Rotten Tomatoes rated the movie Nowhere to Hide with such a low rating. Do they even decide to find out what was the director’s intention throughout the whole movie? I feel like the only way they would rate Nowhere to Hide with such low rating if they do not do it’s research, or evaluate. I find Lee’s way of directing the movie was incredible. Every scene of the film stands out! For example, each fighting scene was different, each character stands out, and the music was awesome. My favorite fighting scene was when detective Woo was chasing the second suspect, and it seemed like a video game. You have both of the characters reflection showing the fight, and it’s not showing them physically fighting throughout their scene. Obviously Detective Woo stands out with his weird face expressions, and his determination. Detective Woo might have lost his last fight, but he still kept trying. Lastly, you can’t go wrong with the Bee-Gees, and I don’t agree that “Holiday” is their greatest song EVER!

    One last thing is that I am never going to trust anyone’s rating. My dad was right the whole time, and I can’t judge a movie based on someone’s rating or opinion. I have to see the movie, before I start giving negative opinions about the movie.

  • Tiffany

    When I first seen Nowhere to hide I thought that it was going to be a gangster film but it actually turned out to be action kind of comedy. You have this cops chasing this guy Sung-kee who always changing the way he looks, he was like a master of disguise. Detective Kim and the rest of the police force have no consideration for anyone that’s around. They have no sense of regard for the people they are around. What was really funny to me was when they started to beat the people in interrogation they pulled out poles and all types of things. And the detective woo just never gives up. It’s like the he lives for the challenges as a cop. He has no family except the police force and doesn’t care that his partner hasn’t been home in three days. Although there was a lot of funny sense in this film you can tell that the director had a lot of fun making this film. Although it was not what I expected I really did enjoy the film.

  • Mercedes Abreu

    I wouldn’t have really noticed the artistic view of the movie until it was mentioned before the screening. I then can appreciate the impressionist view of some scenes. The little girl on the 40 steps is puzzling as she poofs out of thin air, who is she and how is she relevant? The music score is tantalizing from the opening scene – Detective Woo is somewhat hunched over, wearing suspender jeans with this goofy bad boy attitude, he like many thriller genres he fits the bill as dedicated cop chasing bad guy, but has a playful almost ignorant side to him, which keeps you liking his character all the way to the end. I have not watched any South Korean films before and this artistic side of filming is something I wouldn’t expect from a gangster comedy genre.
    The murder scene I agree is powerful. I can agree how it may be hard to describe- From the Bee Gees playing in the background to the golden yellow fall leaves on the street on this rainy day is impressive.
    I was also impressed with the way Lee filmed his closing shots to a scene, they were unexpected. In Lee’s filming his use of the wipe out and changing one scene to a crayon effect was creative and unexpected. I also enjoyed the scene where Detective Woo is fighting murder accomplice Meathead on the rooftop. It was almost cartoon like, or something from an original Batman and Robin television show. His fighting scenes reminded me of Westside Story’s choreography. The using of their shadows to film a fight scene was also epic. Since I haven’t seen many South Korean films, the ones I’ve watched were really good. It’s sad to hear that in opinion; the good years of producing great films for South Korea are over.

  • Edmund Eng

    The first thing that I want to talk about is the unique character of Detective Woo. Detective Woo is always somewhat slouched when he’s walking or running almost like a gorilla and is one of those typical cops that chase criminals for a living. Every once in awhile, Detective Woo is serious, but in a way, he’s very funny. With his reckless and carefree attitude, he shows his unique attributes as a main character and lee[s the audience interested. For me, Detective Woo was hilarious. I would normally expect cops to be all “follow the procedures,” and do things in an orderly fashion, but Detective Woo and his crew did whatever it takes to find the criminal. They didn’t care about anything except finding the criminal. I thought that this was what made “Nowhere to Hide,” a eye-catching and unique movie.
    The director, Lee Myung-se, didn’t do a very good job with the fight scenes in my opinion, but considering the year that this movie was released, I don’t mind much. I felt that the fight scenes were very choppy and had a lot of room for improvement. When I think of an action movie, the fight scenes are the key to the movie. The fight scenes in “Nowhere to Hide,” were sometimes slow and unrealistic. To me, the more realistic the fighting is, the more interesting the movie is, but that’s just my opinion. Great film overall, but just a little improvement can make a huge difference.

  • Lakita Flowers

    I agree the movie may have been better if it was more towards an artistic crowd. The visuals in the movie are very original from what I’ve seen. The fighting scenes are very different, instead of just a wide shot of both characters fighting there was a scene when all you saw was the shadows on what looks like a boat fighting. I’ve yet to see that in a movie myself. Also the scene where the detective was fighting the criminals was different. When the criminal hits the detective the detective puts his gun away and balls up his fist to show how personal the fight has become. That is also shown at the end when the detective is fighting the killer. You can see the anger on their faces and the long stares to show how upset they both are. The use of color at the beginning of the film is also very different to see in a film. Usually you see the black and white background with a pop of color to focus on that object in photography. This is another reason why I agree that this movie may have done better if it was seen by others with a more artistic mind.

  • Christopher Sanchez

    I agree that the movie should of probably been shown to the art film crowd but at the same time this also feels like a movie that gets a cult flowing. The movie is a simple chase but it has some memorable action very similar to John Woo. With very memorable scenes perfectly cut to different songs like the beginning with the opening credits, or the murder, or the final fight in the rain they all work and are very memorable. It also helps when you have an interesting main character like Detective Woo who really only has one purpose and that’s to get the job done. You get to see how the detective works and how he will stop at nothing to catch the killer. We also learn a bit about this characters life when he visits his family. It may be a short seen but it is a really good one as we see he rarely visits them but we can see he wants to see more of them. We also see his loyalty as he spends a lot with his other detectives and makes sure they are well. This is a movie with a relatively simple plot but is still able to convey more thanks to its stylized action and interesting lead. This is also a movie that knows it is a chase movie and doesn’t try to force something more complicated down your throat but it still has something in the background for people to pick up on it they wish.

  • Rocio Gonzalez

    This action movie shows people the typical chase between caps and murderers. Sungmin, the antagonist, is running away from detective Woo and his friend detective Kim who are the protagonists on this story.
    The plot shows several visuals that are fun to watch but also a little distracting for me, fall colors, slow motion movements; combined with other scenes that ended in colorful painting like pictures. Even though this movie is most of it colors, it has some scenes that are black and white, and also cartoon like.
    I agree with the director, if he was trying to show movement, he was right on track showing the fast movements of the train and combining them with the slow movements of the people’s bodies in the fighting scenes.
    We know that the story takes place in a city where Fall has taken place, we see very strong yellows, oranges, green and red leaves during the scenes. The music emphasizes what is happening on the scenes while the characters are in pursue of the murderer. The fight scenes reminded me of the matrix movie where shows the slow motion movements of the ones involved in it.
    I found difficult to follow the plot, but maybe it was because I was blown away with the different visuals. I’m still wondering what happened to the little girl that disappeared from the steps where the murder took place.

  • amni5

    I’ve gotta say, Nowhere to Hide is probably one of the most memorable action films I’ve seen, and a lot of it is due to what you describe. First, the constant motion on screen is just fun to see, it’s like there’s always something happening on screen, and it’s not just happening, but moving. Whether it’s a character running across the screen, or the camera gliding and capturing a scene, there’s always something going on.
    And I believe that Lee comparing himself to Monet is quite interesting, and something that wouldn’t have even crossed my mind if you hadn’t read the quote to us first, and I believe that hearing that quote allowed me to see the film through a different lens as we watched it. At its core, Nowhere to Hide is a film about motion and film making, and despite watching the opening scene over 6 times in class, I think that’s a great example of the film focusing on motion. Not just the way the character moves with his shoulders heavily hunched, but the way the music complements that scene so well to give it an extra bounce, and then the chair just flying from the window so that the character doesn’t have to pause, do well to show the viewer constant motion in some way or another. For me, action films end up being really immemorable because they end up being more or less the same when boiled down to their core concept; something like Nowhere to Hide, however, with its barebones plot and characters feels really novel and fresh, even if its over 15 years old now, manages to have a lot more heart than a lot of actual action films that are being produced now.

  • Doug Jones

    With this film, I felt that there were both forgettable and unforgettable moments. The things that stood out the most are probably the huge and on going fight scenes that really make them realistic and almost if they almost happened. That’s the biggest thing that comes out of this film. The realistic (realism) of this action film stands out from other action films that just focus on over the top explosions and action sequences that don’t really add anything to the film other than just the “wow” factor. With this film it seems like there was more thought and mind added to it.

    What I thought was interesting and well used was the concept of how the cops are almost or just as bad as the crook (criminals). This adds to the realistic point of view also conveying to society of how there are instances of corrupt cops and cops who step out of line and take measures to the extreme which results in controversy (police brutality). The director, Mr. Lee opens up and puts out the very numerous range of certain cop emotions throughout the film. Whether it was all the adrenaline rushes or the less intense stakeouts, and to the attention grabbing similar to anime-like fights, and all adding to cops and criminals eating ramen noodles together.

    Overall, Nowhere to Hide does provide the sense of realistic action that not other action films similar to this have gone before and it results in something interesting and attracts the audience.

  • Shield K.

    One of my favorite scene from this movie was the scene when the detectives first meet Sung-min and a chase pursues. I like how comical and entertaining it ended up being with two people (Detective Woo and Sung-min) running up and down the narrow alley during the night. You were always guessing to see if one or the other would run to each other or if Sung-min would be able to get away, which he eventually did. This scene reminded me of the cartoons from the older days where you would see a set of characters chasing each other through various doors (in a hallway) never quite catching up to the other person.

    On a more serious note, I did enjoy this film for its artistic value. It was a beautifully filmed movie. And I do agree that if it was marketed towards a more artistic audience, this movie would have done better in the US. To be marketed as an “action” movie downplayed what this movie was really about which was watching the beauty of movement and appreciating the art in it.

  • Jessica Diaz

    The film of “Nowhere to Hide” was really entertaining. The chasing between the cops and criminal was unstoppable until it got to the ending. It had a lot of chasing one another and fighting when they got to the criminal. Detective Woo and Detective Kim were funny throughtout the film. For example when they would imagine their food above their head as they were describing it. Detective Woo was a character I enjoyed because of his personality and the way he played his role. Throughout the film their were parts where they were slower paced at times and would pause at times which gave more importance to it and made it seem more dramatic. I think it was pretty cool how at times in the film certain scenes seemed like a video game or anime. The fighting scene at the end was incredible, my favorite scene in the whole film. I thought Detective Woo’s character was really brave because he was not afraid of anything, he likes taking risks and thought it was really brave of him to try and fight Sungmin, the killer, until the cops got their. The rain in the film at the end I thought made the fight scene more powerful. It was different from other films because usually in action films today the good guy wins staying standing at the end but in this film the bad guy was the one that stayed standing. Then when the cops arrived and having showed Detective Woos’s fist up in the air even though he was in the ground shows victory because he kept fighting the criminal long enough so the cops would arrest him. I thought Lee Myung captured the movement soo well since it was the main focus of the film.

  • Alex

    Whoa forget what i said in the last response and move it to this one because this is the film i was talking about, this film has been one of my favorites along with some others we have seen. Although I arrived late I was watching the film through the window in the door and even then this film captured my attention with no sound I just watched and read the characters lines on the subtitles, I added my own voices so it was entertaining. Once i got in the class the film was even better than i expected! Drama, Mystery, Chases, Humor and Justice! what more could you ask for to keep you at your seat. Once again I have to mention the repetition of the rock song, yes it fit and it was good but it was overused and kind of change what i thought about the director once i noticed how many times he used it, and to end with the song? i found it annoying but i understand that it worked for the film and why it was chosen just saying in parts where the song was repeated it could have been substituted.

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