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Tag Archives: Lee Myung-Se

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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A South Korean New Wave Primer

Below is a chronological list of 21 key S. Korean New Wave movies (with commentary) that I compiled to hand out at a Facets Multimedia screening of Save the Green Planet earlier this year. Below the list is a link to a video of the lecture I gave prior to the film.

Christmas in August (Jin Ho-Hur, 1998) – Exquisite melodrama about the romance between a terminally ill photographer and one of his clients.

Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999) – This outrageous action movie is basically one long chase between two cops and a killer. An early scene where an assassin plies his trade to the strains of the Bee-Gees’ “Holiday,” amid yellow autumn leaves and a gently falling rain, is unforgettable.

Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999) – Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Bong Joon-ho, 2000) – Wonderful offbeat comedy/romance and an auspicious debut from one of the most significant Korean directors of our time.

Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, 2000) – Erotic melodrama about the subjective nature of reality, gorgeously shot in black and white.

Chunhyang (Im Kwon-taek, 2000) – Folk opera/musical from one of the “old masters” of S. Korean cinema.

JSA: Joint Security Area (Park Chan-wook, 2000) – The absolute best place to start exploring the S. Korean New Wave; ingeniously plotted political thriller and invaluable history lesson.

Failan (Song Hae-sung, 2001) – I defy you to see this unique gangster movie/melodrama hybrid and not weep by the time it’s over.

Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002) – Comedy/drama about a young man’s quest for love that marries the formalism of Antonioni with the naturalistic performances of Cassavetes.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002) – The first entry in Park’s essential “Vengeance trilogy” is also the most austere and tragic.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, 2003) – Like a Korean Zodiac, this tells the riveting true story of a police investigation into a series of unsolved murders.

Save the Green Planet (Jang Jun-hwan, 2003) – The story of a blue-collar worker convinced that his former boss is an alien intent on destroying the human race, this outrageous and provocative black comedy reflects political anxieties dating back to South Korea’s pro-democracy protests in the 1980s while also serving as a prescient ecological fable on a more universal scale.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-woon, 2003) – Mixture of psychological and supernatural horror that effectively conjures up an atmosphere of dread from the first frame to the last.

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) – Excellent freak-out revenge movie with a supremely ironic “happy ending” that lingered in my imagination long after it ended.

3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk, 2004) – A nearly silent love story that starts out as a work of realism and then slowly, almost imperceptibly, enters a world of purely poetic metaphor. Hypnotic and amazing.

The President’s Last Bang (Im Sang-soo, 2005) – Black comedy/political satire that tells the incredible true story of the assassination of President Park Chung-Hee.

Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005) – The sublime third installment of Park’s vengeance trilogy combines elements of the first two (very different) films and throws intriguing philosophical/religious reflections into the mix.

The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006) – The Spielbergian/Hollywood family-in-peril adventure movie formula is subversively used to express some anti-global/capitalist sentiments in this outrageously entertaining monster movie.

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006) – Hong Sang-Soo’s funniest ode to romantic folly. You’ll be humming the catchy score for days.

Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007) – A widow moves with her son to the hometown of her recently deceased husband only to encounter further tragedy in this thematically complex, novelistic character study from the great writer/director Lee Chang-dong.

The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, 2008) – A generic serial killer plot is given a refreshingly original spin by adding an abundance of expertly executed foot-chases in this superior thriller.

And the lecture:

http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/5077314/


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