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Nowhere to Hide

All I ask of an action film is that it entertains me. I’m not a demanding viewer most of the time. I’m easy to satisfy, and I don’t think that makes me simple-minded. No, there are plenty of other things that do that. As long as the movie isn’t god-awful boring or just plain full of crap, I’ll probably at least enjoy my time watching it, even if it isn’t the sort of thing I’d ever buy. Frankly, I’d much rather sit through a dumb but exciting action film than a boring one that tries to be smart and fails miserably. At least a dumb action movie lets you know immediately where you stand. At the same time, I hate a lot of big, dumb action movies. Is this a contradiction? Hypocrisy? Well, don’t try to figure me out. I’m one of those hedge mazes, baby, and you could get lost in my leafy green complexity.

Just because I don’t need a film to be smart doesn’t mean I don’t want a film to be smart. It’s icing on the cake. So I was delighted when I sat down to watch Nowhere to Hide, another in the increasingly long line of top-notch Korean action films I’ve been getting around to watching lately. On the surface it is a simple story of a cop chasing a killer. It plays to all the genre cliches that come with the territory: the cop is on the edge and has an unhappy (or non-existent) normal life, the criminal is cool and calculating, the cops are as brutal as the criminals, etc etc. If you were to read a simple plot synopsis, there would be nothing in it to suggest that Nowhere to Hide was anything more than a run-of-the-mill actioner no different than a thousand other films.

Obviously, I wouldn’t have prefaced this whole thing with that bit about smart movies if there wasn’t something more at play here than a run-of-the-mill action film. There are, first and foremost, two rather spectacular things about the film that set it apart from the pack. First is the visual style, which manages to be unique even in today’s atmosphere of style run rampant, with everyone seeming to forget that a movie needs more than “cool visuals” to be entertaining. If all you can do is make cool visuals, become a painter. We’ll get to that later, but what I want to discuss first is the more subtle thing going on in Nowhere to Hide, primarily because it’s something that doesn’t get discussed too much since everyone is busy obsessing over the visual style and forgetting the rest of the film.

The most unique thing about this movie is its near complete lack of gunplay. In a romantic comedy, this wouldn’t be so spectacular a thing, but in an action film about out-of-control cops chasing a wily killer, one expects a certain amount of shooting to occur, or at least a certain amount of guys waving guns around over their head. Not so here, where guns are almost never a factor, save for one time. And in that one time, the fact that a gun has been used is a source of major concern for all involved. As such, at least from an American perspective, and from the perspective of someone who watches a lot of action films from all over the world, Nowhere to Hide is something surprising and unique, a counterbalance to the rather nonchalant use of guns in just about every other film in the genre.

No one would ever say that Hong Kong action films are free of gunplay. For American fans at least, John Woo defines Hong Kong action cinema, and his movies are defined by the interaction of people and pistols. Even Jackie Chan, whose movies revolve around stunts and martial arts, frequently uses guns whenever he’s playing a cop. In American films, guns are a given. The most famous cinematic cop in America is probably Dirty Harry, and nothing defined Harry like his Magnum. Even Nowhere to Hide’s Korean contemporaries seem to embrace gun culture, as movies like Shiri were positively boiling over with high-caliber action. In each of these movies, guns are the first, easiest solution to any problem. Going into a dangerous situation? Go in with your gun drawn. Someone fighting with you? Point your gun at them and shut them up.

Detective Woo in Nowhere to Hide is, by any other measure, the proverbial cop on the edge. The big difference is that he doesn’t use a gun. He doesn’t even carry one, at least until the very end, and even then he is quite bad with it. Likewise, none of the men working with him use guns. Only one member of his force actually draws a gun during a dangerous situation, and the results are a source of torture for him from that moment on. On the flipside of the coin, none of the criminals use guns either. The main killer uses a sword, and when challenged, his fists. Everyone else, cops and criminals alike, seem to favor pipes and bats if they need a weapon. The distinct lack of guns in the film makes you call into question the entire concept of brutality and just what makes a brutal action film “brutal.”

Because make no mistake about it, although it’s a very twisted and offbeat black comedy in spots, Nowhere to Hide is a brutal film. Woo and his men are sadistic, constantly yearning for a fight, and not at all shy about beating confessions out of people. The sight of a cop socking a criminal in the jaw is considered brutal and abusive, thanks primarily to the flesh-on-flesh contact. For some reason, the same cop waving a gun in the face of the same unarmed man wouldn’t really stun anyone so long as he didn’t actually pull the trigger. So is it the firing of a gun that is brutal, or isn’t the mere use of it as a tool for intimidation, a way to get power over someone without a gun, something brutal as well? Why is the use of a gun so sanitized, so expected, and the use of a fist considered so base and animalistic? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Why is a fist fight savage but the use of a gun not?

Personally, and I’m no pop psychologist, I think we simply relate more to the sight of someone getting pounded like a side of beef being tenderized by an Iron Chef. The threat of a fist in the face is a lot more real to most people than the threat of ever having a gun pulled on them. It’s something we all understand more. To put a real-life spin on it, I’m pretty nervous around any physical altercation that involves me, even if it’s one I could win (and those are few and far between). The fist fights I’ve been in have always been a source of great anxiety for me. Conversely, the night I had a gun pulled on me, fear never even ran through my mind. It was just like, “Oh hell, let’s just get this over with. I have things to do.” By all accounts, the chances of someone with a gun killing me are higher than someone beating me to death with their bare hands, but I was a lot less scared looking down the barrel of a gun than I am looking at someone’s knuckles flying toward my nose.

Here in the US, that we have a gun culture goes without saying. They’re in our Constitution. They’re strapped to our police officers and sometimes even our shopping mall rent-a-cops. More than a few private citizens have them. No matter how many teenagers and computer programmers bring them to school or work to shoot up their peers, cries of outrage are let loose in response to even the mildest form of gun control. When our police force confronts a hostile situation, they do so with guns drawn, primarily because the people opposing them probably have their guns drawn, and despite what those pugilists in the Boxer’s Rebellion thought, bare flesh versus hard steel rarely works out to the advantage of the guy with the bare flesh. Case in point: how did the Boxers do?

Nowhere to Hide presents us with a culture that isn’t obsessed with guns, and by doing so, even if it was unintentional, it calls into question the differences between the two cultures, something that action films rarely think to do. When confronted with a hostile situation, even one in which they don’t know if the other side is armed, the response of the boys in Woo’s pack consists of clenching their fists and getting ready for a brawl. The film opens with Woo himself busting a large gang with nothing but his fists to back up his words. Eventually some friends show up, but they all have pipes. No guns. True, it’s easier for a police force to operate without relying on guns when the criminals have to do the same, but then, that’s all part of living in a culture that has not so enthusiastically embraced the gun as a God given right rather than a reluctant last resort.

Despite all this, Woo is considered violent and out-of-control. His tactics of beating the crap out of people were shocking enough to raise the eyebrows of censors when the movie was recut for the American home video market. For some reason, punching a suspect is considered more violent than shooting at them, or threatening to shoot at them. Sure, I don’t want a cop shooting at or punching me, but if I had to choose, even though a punch in the face scares me, I’d probably take it over a bullet to the head. With this added layer of thought about guns and the nature of violence, about how we become desensitized to the use of a gun because the use of a gun is so impersonal, Nowhere to Hide is suddenly a lot more complex than the otherwise straight-forward plot might have some people believe.

Joong-Hoon Park plays Detective Woo, a squat, brutish looking guy in a leather coat and floppy LL Cool J hat. Woo is part of a controversial homicide unit where they’re willing to beat a confession out of anyone they know is a criminal, even if that person is a teenager or a woman. Still, the only real sidearm Woo carries is a pistol that shoots a relatively useless puff of mace that never seems to stop anyone. When asked by his partner if he wouldn’t feel safer with a gun, Woo laughs at the suggestion. He’s a fighter, and he’d much rather risk his life in a fist fight than take the coward’s way out by pulling a gun. His partner, Kim (Dong-Kun Jang), is younger and less shy about letting a gun get him out of a sticky situation every now and again. Even so, it’s rare that he ever uses it, preferring instead to simply let a lead pipe upside the head be his fighting advantage.

When a man is murdered, apparently as part of some sort of underworld power play, Woo and his team are assigned the investigation. Even the assassin, Sungmin (Sung-kee Ahn) doesn’t bother with guns. In one of the film’s many superb sequences, he hits his mark with a sword during a downpour out on the 40 Steps, a famous landmark in Inchon, all while The Bee Gee’s haunting “Holiday” plays (and if you don’t believe the Bee Gee’s can be haunting, this song will convince you otherwise). His back-up thugs chase away the other guy’s thugs again not with guns, but with bats and blades.

A few shakedowns here and there, and a particularly amusing fight between Woo and a big guy named Meathead, lead the cops to Juyon (Ji-Woo Choi), Sungmin’s girlfriend. The fight between Woo and Meathead is yet another example of just how different this movie is from most other action films. In nearly any other film, Woo would have pulled a gun on Meathead and said, “Alright, let’s get going,” and that would have been the end of it, and we wouldn’t have thought anything was wrong with that. Instead, Woo refuses to even give a gun a thought, wanting instead to have it out with Meathead and subdue him physically. Again, it’s curious that simply pointing a gun at the guy and hauling him in is considered fine, but refusing to use a gun in favor of fighting your opponent unarmed is considered barbaric. You could say that the gun is a way to avoid the violence, and then someone else could counter that by saying that even pointing the gun at someone is a violent act.

Even when the cops are waiting for Sungmin at Juyon’s place, none of them use guns. Once again, they all rely on fists and feet. When the fight turns into a chase, the cops could end it simply by pulling out a gun and yelling, “Freeze!” Once again, that wouldn’t strike anyone as unusual, even if the criminals were unarmed. They don’t do that however, because for them, and for this movie, the gun is not an answer. It’s not a short-cut or a way to get work done without effort. The cops would rather run themselves ragged in a foot chase than turn to a gun to solve things for them. Of course, that could also be part of the reason Sungmin is able to escape. In another moment of humor – and this film is an action-comedy (just not slapstick) – Woo fires his mace gun off wildly, even when Sungmin is nowhere to be seen or is far out of the pistols range of what looks to be about three feet. That thing really is useless, which may or may not be additional imagery pertaining to the movie’s attitudes toward our societal reliance on guns.

The one time a gun is used is by Kim, when a crazed man holds a kid hostage using a straight razor. During a moment of confusion, Kim fires and kills the criminal. By all means, it is a justified shot, and most movies wouldn’t even think twice about it, except maybe to add some silly one-liner to tie things up nicely. Here, however, the shooting becomes a source of great inner turmoil for Kim, who can’t fully convince himself that shooting anyone is a brave or right thing to do. “Never forget this feeling,” Woo tells him, showing that for all his willingness to beat someone up, even Woo considers the use of a gun with great gravity. At no point do they condemn it. They merely suggest that one should always remember the consequences and never let the use of a gun become standard practice.

From colorful fall nights to the snowy dead of winter, Woo and his men continue to track the elusive Sungmin, leading to a confrontation on a train (with Woo disguised as a drink vendor looking like Angus Young from AC/DC), and finally a showdown in a rain-drenched construction lot. In the final confrontation of the film, Woo finally resorts to a gun, but it is ultimately useless, and he throws it down into a puddle of mud in favor of settling the score with his fists. The outcome of the final fight is also a twist on what one would expect from this sort of film, but by the final moments, Nowhere to Hide has proven it’s anything but just another “this type of film.”

The uniqueness of the film’s approach to violence and action is matched by its uniqueness in style and appearance. It switches from washed-out, grainy black and white to vibrant, rich, almost overwhelming color. It slams recklessly between slow-motion and regular speed. It toys with lighting, angles, and composition as freely as the script toys with the expectations of a “cop on the edge” story. It is a beautiful film to watch, and the visual flare manages to augment rather than overwhelm. Some people use visual flash as a way to mask weak stories and bad movies. In those moments, the visuals and the effects become the reason for the movie, the center of attention when they should be there to help tell the story instead of covering it up. Though some of the tricks in Nowhere to Hide have no real point, they never overwhelm the story, and they never become annoying. They are simply another layer of what is going on.

As I stated earlier, the plot is simple even if the execution is not. Each of the characters fulfills a genre stereotype, though always with enough of a twist to remind you that this isn’t business as usual. Sungmin is easy to dismiss as the cool, brilliant criminal because he dresses smartly, and the villains are always cool and brilliant. The big difference here is that he’s neither cool nor especially brilliant, at least not as we actually see him once you strip away expectations you bring in from other movies. His girlfriend is a regular, though quite beautiful, woman in her early thirties living a very simple middle class life despite the fact her boyfriend is an underworld assassin.

Sungmin himself says no more than a few words during the entire picture, and those words are merely an observation of something obvious about a door. He’s able to elude the police because he’s somewhat careful some of the time, but he still makes the mistake of visiting his girlfriend once her identity is known (and without checking the place out beforehand). His attempts to elude the police on the train are slightly less than genius as well. In fact, in the story presented, there is nothing at all to suggest that Sungmin is brilliant, or even somewhat smart, or that he is a great criminal. These are all expectations we bring in with us, and it’s something of a surprise to realize the movie has not played to those expectations. Instead, it’s played on them.

By the same token, Woo and Kim are supposed to be the archetypal rogue cops, the kind who ruffle the feathers of the higher ups and always give the mayor a headache. Again, those are character traits we bring into the film with us and which the film quickly subverts. Rather than being angered by the violence, Woo’s captain is annoyed that the men can’t get more information with it. Despite the fact that they regularly beat up suspects during interrogation, there is never any indication that Woo and his men are ever disciplined from higher up or that anyone looks upon their actions with disgust or moral outrage.

By the book, Woo should be the hothead and his partner should be the by-the-books type. Instead, they’re both hotheads, and it’s the partner who tends to get careless with the gun. Although he’s a bad-ass, Woo is also a human character. Though he loves a good fight, he doesn’t always win them. A visit to his sister ends with him donning his new pair of gloves (a gift from the previous year’s Christmas that he never opened) and frolicking off into the snowy night like a little kid. We do get the requisite talk about how the lines between cops and criminals are blurred, and how Woo only became a cop to keep himself from becoming a thug, but those are never central themes in the movie since, by comparison, the criminals get next to no screen time.

Despite somewhat broadly drawn characters, the movie manages to personalize Woo and Sungmin’s girlfriend, Juyon. Even Sungmin develops a character despite saying almost nothing and only being on screen a few minutes. I guess he’s sort of like Boba Fett. Again, it’s because we all carry preconceptions of what these characters should be, and the movie allows us to fill them in and mold them slightly to our liking. You could write it off as shallow characterization, but I think it’s too effective at drawing you in to be so hastily dismissed. Despite his thuggishness, it’s hard not to like Woo. He may hit people, but he won’t shoot them. He is never anyone other than who he is, and that’s a refreshing honesty. His scenes with Juyon, the world-weary woman who has gotten involved in more than she wants to deal with, lend an air of melancholy to the film. These are, at heart, two very lonely characters who will find no release from their solitude. Sungmin will either be captured or disappear forever. Woo will always spend his evenings on a stake-out or sitting alone at home cooking up some ramen on a camping stove in the middle of his floor.

It helps the characters to have such accomplished actors behind them. Joong-Hoon Park is utterly superb as Woo, managing to drum up fondness for a guy who could be very easy to dislike if handled incorrectly by the actor. Instead, he comes across like a bully big brother who, just as you start to dislike him, does something really meaningful and sweet. Sung-kee Ahn as Sungmin is also accomplished, and by far the most experienced of the main cast. It is the quiet grace and strength with which he carries himself that allows you to fill in his character. That he can leave such an impression with so little time on screen is quite a feat. Ji-woo Choi is simply stunning, but beauty alone will only get you compared to Liv Tyler. As Juyon, she lends the film a sense of “everyman” (or everywoman) humanity and sadness. Dong-kun Jang, who plays Woo’s partner Kim, is the least engaging of the main cast, but that’s only because his character is the least engaging. He’s there primarily to be Woo’s sidekick, and although his character is given plenty to think and do, Kim never becomes as moving a figure as Woo or Juyon.

It’s nice to see a movie with an older cast, something that a lot of filmmakers have forgotten about. Now, young folks are fine and all, but a fella like me can only take so many films about a guy in his early twenties who is supposed to be some seasoned FBI agent or hardened street cop. It’s good to see some people with a couple lines in their faces amid this era of youth worship. No, it’s not like we’re watching Carl Olsen up there in action, but at least we’re not expected to buy some fresh-faced lad of twenty as a grizzled veteran of the homicide department. Even Ji-woo Choi is close to thirty, which makes her positively ancient by Hollywood standards. Well, by all Hollywood standards except the one that allows Meg Ryan to still act like she’s nineteen. Weird how in the 1980s, we had all these teens movies starring people in their thirties as teenagers. Now we have all these movies with supposedly older adult characters being played by people barely out of their teens. I fully expect to see a remake of Cocoon starring Aaron Carter, Mandy Moore, the members of O-Town, and in the role formerly occupied by Steve Guttenberg – Steve Guttenberg.

Not that we’re entirely devoid of wrinkles here. Sean Connery still catches the eye, as does George Clooney. And that dreamy Robert Redford? He voted for Taft!

Lightening what would otherwise be a grim film is a truly wonderful and twisted dark sense of humor that keeps most of the proceedings feeling like something out of a cartoon. Amazingly, this doesn’t really undercut the brutality or effectiveness of the film, which has enough serious moments to balance things out nicely. It’s sort of like watching a Walter Hill film along the lines of 48 Hours, where there is plenty of dark comedy, but it is seamlessly blended with more sinister elements that result in a well-balanced film rather than something that veers wildly from one mood to the other without establishing anything. Sometimes the violence is used for humorous effect; sometimes it’s deadly serious.

I’m a bit surprised that most critics and viewers are so dismissive of the plot as being non-existent. It’s there, and it actually has quite a lot to say, even if it chooses not to do it through dialogue. Perhaps it’s just me, and I’m seeing more than was ever meant to be there, but you know how it is. If I see it, then it’s there, at least for me. That the movie has chosen to develop both plot and characters in a somewhat unconventional manner seems to get missed, or it simply doesn’t work for some people. I thought it was delightful. Despite what you might think, I don’t feel engrossed by movies that are nothing but visual flare and pointless action scenes. Though Nowhere to Hide is dripping with visual flare and action, never once did I feel it was the entire point of the film. Like I always say, you get out of a film what you put into it, and most people seem unwilling to look beyond the film’s visuals and see anything more. Fine with me. I have no vested interested in convincing people that what they dismiss as nonsense is actually, at least to me, an interesting and subversive plot. In a world where movies have gotten so manipulative and so dumb, people hardly recognize something clever when it comes along. Rather than beat you over the head with it, director Lee Myung-Se allows his film to gather substance along the way, and apparently, it does with a subtlety lost on many viewers. I have no problem being in the minority in thinking that there is a hell of a lot more going on here than just cool visual tricks.

The movie even further subverts expectations by delivering violence that isn’t particularly nice to look at. We expect well-choreographed shootout and fight scenes that play out like ballet. Nowhere to Hide gives us sloppy, awkward fist fights that look pretty much like fights do in real life. The movie isn’t here to make violence look cool. In fact, it’s often striving to make violence look absurd.

Ultimately, it’s one of those movies you have to see for yourself and make up your mind about. Is it mindless fluff, violent nonsense, or an actual thoughtful and enjoyable piece of filmmaking? Is it all those things? I thought it was wonderful, but like I said in the opening paragraphs of this review, I’m often easy to please. It’s the antithesis of movies by directors like John Woo, who of course, Lee Myung-Se gets compared to a lot by critics who don’t know any other names in Asian cinema. Never mind that the movies and directors are nothing alike aside form the frequent use of slow motion. Nowhere to Hide lets you put your own notions into it, and if those notions are that this is all style and no substance, then that’s what you’ll see. I actually went in knowing very little about the film and director, and had no real preconceptions about what I was about to witness. I think that worked out well for me, because I ended up seeing quite a lot.

On top of that, I flat out enjoyed the film. It’s unique in style and substance. It’s expertly pieced together, beautiful and ferocious to behold. It’s funny, twisted, gritty, and sad. Ten minutes were slashed from the American version of the film, which may be why people seem to miss so much of what’s going on in it, so seek out the uncut 112 minute original Korean version. It’s bombastic, it’s flashy, it’s innovative. It has something to say even if people seem not to hear it. But none of that matters much if it isn’t an enjoyable film, and I thought Nowhere to Hide was simply fascinating. And hell, even if you think I’m full of it, at least the film is entertaining and cool to look at.