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