Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review: Nowhere to Hide / 인정사정 볼 것 없다 (1999)

'Nowhere to Hide' recently screened at the Korean Cultural Office's weekly film night program Cinema on the Park, with special guest introduction by Russell Edwards (SBS Film). Read on below to check out film blogger Paul Bramhall's thoughts on the film. Feel free to comment below on your views on the film.

‘Nowhere to Hide’ has a unique place in my own personal history of becoming a Korean movie fan. While it was ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance / 복수는 나의 것’ which secured my love for the industry in 2002, I actually viewed ‘Nowhere to Hide’ a whole year earlier back when it was released on DVD in the UK. At that point in time I was still very much the definitive Hong Kong action movie fan, and the Western world as a whole had become familiar with Asian film-making in a way that it never had before. Suddenly people knew Yuen Woo Ping’s name thanks to his action choreography on ‘The Matrix’, and John Woo had also become a household name through the recently released ‘Mission: Impossible II’.

This familiarity also had a downside though. The result was that virtually any movie which starred at least one Asian actor, and featured even a few seconds of someone holding a gun, would be ridiculously marketed along the lines of – “The next John Woo is here!”, “(Insert generic Hollywood movie title here) Meets ‘The Matrix’!” – and other such nonsense. ‘Nowhere to Hide’ was a victim to this upon its UK DVD release (the first Korean movie to get a UK DVD release no less), I still have the box with “A Sure-Fire Hit with Fans of ‘Hard Boiled’” plastered across the top, and “Is Hollywood Ready for the Next John Woo?” across the bottom. So it was I popped it into the DVD player with the expectation of an epic bullet fest with hardly a moments breath to reload, what I got of course, was something distinctly different.

The truth is you can count the number of gun shots fired in ‘Nowhere to Hide’ on one hand, and for this exact reason after that first viewing I dismissed it as a huge letdown, and wouldn’t pay it any attention until a couple of years later. Now, 14 years since it’s initial release, my feelings for ‘Nowhere to Hide’ have changed a lot, considered to be the breakout movie from director Lee Myeong-se (‘Duelist / 형사’), it is in fact a visual tour de-force of almost every cinematic trick in the book. Taken for what it is, the whole movie is an assault on the senses, with the actual plot taking an obvious backseat to a director seemingly exploring what can be done within the medium of film. ‘Nowhere to Hide’ seems to polarize people’s opinions, as do the directors other works as well. Personally I still haven’t been able to sit through the whole of his 2005 follow up ‘Duelist / 형사’, but I loved his 2007 feature ‘M / 엠’.

On paper, the plot reads like a generic cop thriller. Park Jong-hoon (‘Hanji / 달빛 길어올리기’) plays a grizzled detective, stomping through the streets of Incheon like an angry gorilla, who along with his partner, played by Jang Dong-gun (‘My Way / 마이 웨이’), are on the trail of a mysterious assassin, played by Ahn Seong-gi (‘Unbowed / 부러진 화살’), who gets one line of dialogue for the duration of the movie. To this day if there is ever a conversation around which movie has the greatest opening, I still vote for ‘Nowhere to Hide’, purely based on an amazing ten minutes of stylistic excellence which introduces us to the three main players. Set to Spanish guitar, Korean rock, & even the Bee Gees, once seen the sequence is one which will be unlikely to be forgotten.

It also sets the tone for what’s to come, displaying a visual style which bombards us with techniques ranging from monochrome images spliced in with flashes of colour, slow-motion, jump cut editing, step-printed slow motion, jump dissolves, still frames, and layering images on top of one another. It’s an audio visual feast and the movie continues in the same fashion for its duration, throwing in quirky elements such as thought bubbles to show the noodles the detectives wish they were eating while stuck in a car on a stake-out, to a fight scene played out in silhouette against sheets hanging on a roof-top set to flamenco music. Much more than anything unfolding in the actual story of the movie, you are usually left wondering what visual trickery awaits in the next scene, and it’s perhaps this focus more on the stylistic elements rather than any kind of substance which is what splits people down the middle.

Somewhere along the way though, thankfully we do feel a connection with the characters. When Jong-hoon isn’t snarling or beating someone up, there’s a quiet scene in his threadbare apartment in which he reveals he’s a cop because he can’t do anything else, and while these moments are few and far between, they do just enough to gain our support. Jang Dong-gun also strikes a chord as the less experienced partner, and went on to win the award for best supporting actor at that years Blue Dragon Film Awards. However it’s Ahn Seong-gi who steals the show, who with his limited screen times and barely a single line of dialogue, owns the screen whenever he’s on it with his subtle glances and expressions. From the opening hit on a businessman played by Song Yeong-chang (‘The Man From Nowhere /아저씨’), which also marked the first time I’ve seen CGI blood incorporated into a movie, to the final fight in the coal yard against Jong-hoon, which for anyone who’s seen ‘Matrix Revolutions’ will seem very familiar, Seong-gi is a pleasure to watch.

No doubt ‘Nowhere to Hide’, as with most of Myeong-se’s movies, will continue to divide peoples opinions. For those that strictly like substance before style, his work may seem like empty exercises in cinematic trickery, but for those willing to put aside any preconceived notions of how a movie should be structured, you’ll find a lot to enjoy, and that’s how cinema should be.

Russell Edwards introducing Nowhere to Hide at Cinema on the Park


  1. Excellent as usual Paul. This film absolutely thrilled me when I first saw it. I have since watched it many more times as I share it with friends, and it is still always a thrill. To me the assassination scene is a mini masterpiece, with the shouldn't-work, but totally does Bee Gees accompaniment. The film also instantly made Ahn Seong-gi one of my favorite actors.

    And we're certainly not alone in our admiration either. This Korean film has reached people far and wide. I'll never forget the day I walked into a little suburban deli, and the guy working the counter asked me about the OLD BOY shirt I was wearing. We struck up a conversation about Asian cinema and the first thing he asked was- not about Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li, but "Did you ever see that tripped out joint with the dude wearing the floppy hat, where they have the mad brawl in the rain?" I instantly knew he meant NOWHERE TO HIDE. We started talking up the film, and the next thing you know two other workers and a truck driver customer were all asking "What's this film called? Where can we see it?" I love it, and I hope they all watched it and loved it too.

    When I took my only trip to the Toronto Film Festival (thus far), the first film we saw was Myeong-se’s DUELISTS. Not only was I getting to see a new film from the guy that made NOWHERE TO HIDE, but I would be seeing it in 35mm, and the director was there! He introduced the film, and I was... ugh, absolutely disappointed to the max. I didn't enjoy the film at all. And even though I felt really rude (I bowed politely to show my respect as I backed quietly out of the theater) I decided I'd much rather catch a film (any film) in a different theater than hear the director's Q&A about a film I kind of hated. So I feel you on this one too. Ha haha.

    Looks like based on your recommendation I'm going to be seeking out his film M.

    Thanks for another great article. :)

    - Kung Fu Bob

  2. Hey Bob, thanks for the praise!

    All of Myeong-se's work tends to divide people, even during the screening of the movie last week several people actually walked out before it finished.

    I think it's in part because they are difficult to market, yes 'Nowhere to Hide' in terms of plot is a cop thriller, however the story serves more as a framework to try out all of his cinematic trickery and visual flourishes.

    To somebody expecting a hard boiled crime pic, the confusion is understandable when they suddenly find themselves watching a silhouetted fight scene set to music to look like a demented dance routine. But at the same time, it's these very scenes that give 'Nowhere to Hide' its charm...it's just not a charm which is easy to set expectations for when marketing a movie.

  3. Ah...interesting. Hi, Paul!

    By the way...I did not know that you wrote about Nowhere to hide here. I feel funny that I arranged movie night for M without knowing it. What a co-incidence. Right... Nowhere to hide was a visual feast..

    However this movie was loved locally more because the characters were warm, interesting but convincing for Korean audience on top of visual experiment of Lee. For example, Joon-hoon looked more criminal than criminals ( and turned out to be a police) but kinda sweet with his own sister, Dong-gun, who used to be just a good looking prince charming, became a actor with character through this movie, Seong-gi who was known as " National actor or national good guy" became a killer(!!!) but looked most sophisticated and nicest than anyone in the movie.....theses characters were all beyond typical movie characters in Korean cinema back then but people just loved it.

    Yes, in deed...you need to be open minded with Myung-Se's movie. He is a bit beyond something especially, he really stretched himself in Duelist and M in terms of dialogues. Some of his dialogue really became sound effects rather than carrying the message. However if you listen to them as sound effects, it is kinda enjoyable.

    And...about Duelist, Western audience does not know the influence of Korean Cartoon ,다모(Damo is a kind of slave belongs to public office during Cho-sun dynasty)and TV drama Damo.Did you? If you watch Dualist in the light of 다모,it helps to understand what Myung-se LEE is trying to say a bit more. But still, Duelist is one of the biggest failure of Myung-se. No doubt about that..even to me.