Thursday 4 June 2009

Nowhere to Hide (1999)

Director: Lee Myung-se
Stars: Park Joong-hoon and Jang Dong-kun

The reviews of this film at IMDb are mixed, generally highly positive but with a number of notable detractors. Almost everyone seems to be agreed, however, that the opening sequences constitute stylish action at its peak. Some reviewers go beyond mere praise and rave effusively and all this peaks my interest, especially given that it's a Korean movie and I'm hooked on the things. What I found was highly impressive, but hardly the greatest thing since sliced bread, the catch being that none of it was remotely what I expected. Perhaps the problem is that looking at it all as just action sequences does it a serious injustice.

Sure, we watch eruptions of gang warfare, cops getting into fights with the bad guys and assassins doing their business, but we see surprisingly little of the actual action. Cinematographers Jeong Kwang-seok and Song Haeng-ki concentrate more on the background, showing us some wondrous images of kids skipping down steps and the beginnings of a storm. They leave the action to the editor, Ko Im-pyo, who turns the fights into staccato sets of still photographs or slow motion footage.

There are a number of clever things going on here, mostly visual but also through the highly diverse soundtrack which ranges from rave to punk to metal to avant garde classical, even a Beatles-esque song to back up those early scenes and a quirky flamenco number used a couple of times later in the film. Reading up on other films that Lee Myung-se has directed, he seems to be something of an artist, making an outright action film a strange choice of material for him, but he tends to write what he directs, so it's not like it was thrust upon him by an uncaring studio.

What we end up with is utterly unconventional action. Some scenes are sped up, others slowed down. Often the camera doesn't look directly at the action but shows us its context instead. One brawl is shot from a static camera, relying entirely on choreography; another in silhouette, including floundering around on the floor. One chase scene bizarrely separates two men running very close to each other to play with our perspective and expectation; another is a set of static shots that the characters speed through. Some scenes play with speed like anime, with alternating hyperspeed and static slide. One slow motion scene is the most rushed such thing I think I've ever seen, half a dozen cops springing frantically into action in response to a doorbell ringing: it's like a slow motion explosion.

And in and amongst all this visual styling, we have something of a story. The opening sequences ended with a man murdered at a location in downtown Seoul called the 40 Steps, a name that is highly appropriate. We watch the cops, led by Detectives Woo and Kim, chase down leads, only to find them leading to other leads and so on, their key target Chang Sungmin always eluding them. As you might expect from the title, he can't run for ever but our trek to the finale has plenty of tension.

Woo is played by the highly charismatic Park Joong-hoon, a highly experienced actor with credits dating back to 1986, a long time in modern Korean cinema. He has a ball here playing good cop/bad cop all by himself, quirkily playing both sides of that coin, alternately threatening people and becoming their best friend, effectively moving in with them. Park is great at this double act and he is great at seeming driven. His rages and his realisations are palpable.

Kim is Jang Dong-kun, who was still establishing himself in 1999 so accordingly plays second fiddle here. However since this film he's moved on to a much higher profile career than his more experienced colleague, appearing in some of Korea's highest grossing films, including Friend and Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War. He still only has 13 films to his name but I have another one on my DVR already: Kim Ki-duk's The Coast Guard. Here he's sometimes more subtle and sometimes far more of a poseur, often with head down and eyes up.

This is a strange film to watch because it's not often that you can watch an action film and an art film be the same thing, but this is definitely a film that relishes both concepts. There are scenes here straight out of spaghetti westerns and others from anime battles. There are a few melees and they're pretty wild, as confusing to the participants as they are to us. But when the action is at its most brutal, the soundtrack is at its most balletic, deliberately frustrating our expectations. There are gorgeous shots of snow and rain that match anything I've seen elsewhere and scenes borrowed straight out of Kurosawa: not just The Seven Samurai but Rashomon and Ikiru.

I really liked this film, but I can see why a lot of people don't. It refuses to be conventional, except when it wants to be utterly conventional, maybe just when we've got used to the lack of convention. I think viewers who love action but don't want to venture outside of that genre are going to get seriously frustrated here. Art film afficionados may not like the amount of violence or some of the more trendy stylings. Only people who can really relish both could find this becoming a quirky favourite.

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