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Nowhere to Hide


Written and directed by Lee Myung-Se

With Park Joong-Hoon, Ahn Sung-Ki, and Jang Dong-Kun.

By Steve Erickson

Americans may divide contemporary Asian cinema into nonstop action films (John Woo's Hard-Boiled) or austere formalist works (Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai), but as demonstrated by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, what's most refreshing about the region's filmmakers is the way they blur the boundaries between the multiplex and the art house. In the 90s, Takeshi Kitano and Wong Kar-wai built cult reputations by expressing their eccentric sensibilities through genre ready-mades. Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has released straight horror films (Sweet Home) and exercises in post-Jarmusch deadpan (License to Live), but his best film combines the two (Cure, scheduled for a U.S. release this year). In The Hole, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang crossbreeds a sci-fi premise and musical numbers with his usual Antonioni-like ennui, while in Victim, Hong Kong director Ringo Lam turns a ghost story into an exploration of economic anxiety akin to Tsai or early Edward Yang.

Nowhere to Hide, a South Korean film opening this weekend at the Music Box, takes the strategy further than anything I've seen recently, mapping the intersections between action cinema and the avant-garde. Writer-director Lee Myung-Se draws on obvious sources like Dirty Harry and John Woo, while his postmodern imagery digests the vocabulary of silent cinema, animation, avant-garde film, and music video (most of the action is set to pounding techno and heavy metal). His pacing is masterful, the numerous fights and chases are enthralling, and the cinematography, by Jeong Kwang-Soek and Song Haeng-Ki, is consistently beautiful, a lush tone poem about the texture of light, rain, and snow. Unfortunately the film derives much of its power from the childlike thrill of beating the shit out of our enemies. If Nowhere to Hide were easier to dismiss as art, it wouldn't be nearly as troubling.

The plot could have come out of a Louis Feuillade serial: Chang Sungmin (Ahn Sung-Ki), a drug kingpin and master of disguise, murders a man on an outdoor staircase, a bravura set piece that triggers a lengthy cat-and-mouse game between him and Detective Woo (Park Joong-Hoon). Numerous chase scenes ensue as the detective, his partner (Jang Dong-Kun), and their colleagues track down, interrogate, and often brutalize Chang's underlings. Woo's partner, a by-the-book cop, cries after killing a man and refuses to urinate in the street alongside his colleagues, but he sees nothing wrong with Woo assaulting suspects. "I've broken teeth before," says one of Woo's commanding officers, "but he's way meaner than I am."

Champions of the film argue that it presents the characters' ugliness without judgment, that American viewers who think it glorifies police brutality (the most negative reviews in New York came from African-American critics) are projecting our own problems onto a different culture. For whatever it's worth, Lee describes himself as a leftist and says the cops in Nowhere to Hide reflect the ones he met while writing the screenplay (Park even took his animalistic body language and facial expressions, which suggest a human pit bull, from Woo's real-life counterpart). But if Nowhere to Hide is an indictment of the city of Inchon's police force, the idea languishes on the level of ambiguous subtext. Even Dirty Harry was more honest about its hero's sadism.

I've seen two other films by Lee--First Love (1993), about a college student's crush on an older theater director, and My Love, My Bride (1990), about a writer's troubled marriage. He's hardly a conventional narrative filmmaker: in First Love he depicts a dinner scene through still photos and silhouettes and, for no apparent reason, shows a girl brushing her teeth in fast motion. To express the heroine's moods he uses animation and poetry intertitles and allows her to speak directly to the audience. My Love, My Bride is more conventional, but its episodic structure is overtly inspired by comic books, its first few scenes jumping from the lovers' awkward first date to their honeymoon. In Nowhere to Hide the quicksilver action is often interrupted by brief bursts of slow motion, total stillness, or even drawings of the characters. Yet Lee seems less interested in developing those characters than in mining the genre (be it romance, comedy, or action) for visual material. He treats his characters with bemused affection, which may be relatively benign in the earlier films but becomes morally dubious when applied to the brain-dead bullies of Nowhere to Hide.

Grady Hendrix, a film programmer for Subway Cinema in New York, offers a compelling reading of the film's theme: Nowhere to Hide critiques the action film itself, and our own hunger for action. "The cops are addicted to it, and...it gives them an intense thrill, while devaluing the rest of their lives. The bleakness of Woo's empty life--he doesn't see his parents, he barely communicates with his siblings, his apartment is an empty rat's nest of garbage--is relieved only by the thrill of the chase." Yet from the very first scene Woo is presented not as a victim of his job but as an icon, a glamorously feral bad-ass. Recent Hong Kong films (Johnnie To's A Hero Never Dies, Patrick Yau's The Longest Nite, Lo Chi-Leung's Double Tap) have deconstructed the action movie more successfully.

Lee's self-absorbed playfulness toward the genre is more reminiscent of Hollywood's recent wave of neo-noir. He defended the violence in Nowhere to Hide during a screening in New York: "After the detectives beat Meathead in the police station, he emerges with footprints all over his face. How can anyone take this seriously?" (This may be the first film to bridge the gap between Buster Keaton and the Rodney King video.) Lee has made an unusual action film, but its stylized carnage never challenges or distances us from the pleasures of the genre. In contrast, the violence in Double Tap and The Longest Nite can be chilling, almost unwatchable; in the latter film a corrupt cop threatens to gouge out a woman's eye with a pencil, leaving no doubt as to what Yau thinks of him.

One colleague of mine says he's not interested in asking moral or ideological questions of Nowhere to Hide because the story is only a pretext for stylistic exercise. If that's the case, Lee might have steered clear of police brutality altogether by choosing a less narrative-oriented approach. Unfortunately the experimental aspects of his film only contribute to the visceral force of its cruelty. In a different context such minimalist abstraction might be a strength, but the hallucinatory euphoria of Lee's set pieces eventually turns sour. They're like a gorgeous series of disconnected shorts framing a subject that warrants far more rigorous treatment. Nowhere to Hide may not be devoid of substance, but beneath the virtuoso finish it's rotten to the core.

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