There are, first and foremost, two rather spectacular things about the Korean new wave action film Nowhere to Hide (1999, directed by Lee Myung-se) 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. 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 gun play. 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 assassin, 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 unique, a counterbalance to the rather nonchalant gun violence 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 when 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 embrace gun culture, as movies such as Shiri were boiling over with high-caliber action. In each of these, 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. It’s standard operating procedure for straight-laced cops and “cops on the edge,” both.
Nowhere to Hide‘s Detective Woo (Park Joong-Hoon) 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 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. On the flip side 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, favors pipes and bats. 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?
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 suggestion of gun control. When our police force confronts a hostile situation, they do so with guns drawn. But Nowhere to Hide presents us with a cop that isn’t as obsessed with guns. 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 lead pipes. The only sidearm Woo carries is a pistol that shoots a 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. 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 (Ahn Sung-kee) 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. True, it’s partly because guns are harder to come by in Korea, but that certainly didn’t stop other Korean action films from strapping on the firepower.
A few shakedowns here and there, and a particularly amusing fight between Woo and a big guy named Meathead, lead the cops to Juyon (Choi Ji-Woo), 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, 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. Of course, that could also be part of the reason Sungmin is able to escape. 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. Here, however, the shooting becomes a source of inner turmoil for Kim, who can’t fully convince himself that shooting anyone is the right thing to do. “Never forget this feeling,” Woo tells him, showing that for all his willingness to beat someone up, 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 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.
Each of the film’s 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 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 woman in her thirties, living a 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 careful, but he still makes the mistake of visiting his girlfriend once her identity is known. His attempts to elude the police on the train are less than genius as well. In fact, in the story presented, there is nothing at all to suggest that Sungmin is brilliant or that he is a great assassin. 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. It is the quiet grace and strength with which Sung-kee Ahn imbues Sungmin 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.
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. 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 gets careless with the gun. Although Woo 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 broadly-drawn characters, the movie manages to personalize Woo and Juyon. Even Sungmin develops a character despite saying almost nothing and only being on screen a few minutes. 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 it’s too effective at drawing you in to be so hastily dismissed. Despite his thuggishness, it’s hard not to like Woo. Joong-Hoon Park is 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 meaningful and sweet. He may hit people, but he won’t shoot them. 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.
Lightening what would otherwise be a grim film is a 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 comedy, but it is seamlessly blended with more sinister elements that result in a 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. 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 a thoughtful and enjoyable piece of filmmaking? Is it all those things? It’s unique in style and substance, beautiful and ferocious to behold. It’s funny, twisted, gritty, and sad. It’s bombastic, it’s flashy, it’s innovative. It has something to say even if people often seem not to hear it.