I sat down to this one with Mark’s comments ringing in my ears (or at least on my retinas, said comments being encapsulated in an email). And you know how it is when somebody waxes lyrical about a film: first you get excited, then you get dubious, and finally you get a bit blase. So there I was, curling up with a highly-recommended Korean actioner and two cats ( my film review colleagues) preparing to be disappointed.
And man, it was great. Really. From the first blast of the soundtrack, which ran almost constantly, to the last “dammitall” grin of Park Jung Hoon (playing Woo, a detective), the film captured and held my attention. I haven’t seen such a consummate action film for quite a while.
So what made it so great? Well, for starters, there was very little dialogue, which meant almost no exposition of the plot. Everything was conveyed visually, without the need for characters to stand around and explain plot points. It also meant that the plot was pared down to the barest bones: cops hunting an elusive murder suspect. It’s not a mystery, though, so it doesn’t matter that the plot is so simple. What does matter is the skill with which the director, Lee Myung Sae, leads us through the world of these cops, into their lives and minds and out again, without dialog or a complex back-story or any of the usual devices.
Another factor was the cinematography and visual composition. It was obvious that this cinematographer didn’t just set up his camera somewhere flat, point and shoot. I’d bet that a great deal of thought went into precise angles, and framing considerations, and all the other magic of the cinematographers art: the stuff that turns a film into art rather than craft (or indeed crap, examples of which I won’t mention). A particularly favourite scene was the pursuit on the train: a bunch of cops chasing one suspect who becomes several when accomplices join the fray. The chaotic and crowded melee, cops in disguise fighting bad guys with knives, swords, and big sticks, while all around frightened passengers desperately try to flee, became almost balletic in slow motion. We follow the character’s eyes, we see who they’re watching, and follow their intent, as the entire passenger list tries to get into the aisle. An earlier scene, of cops inhabiting an apartment waiting for a suspect, stirred up like an ant’s nest by the door buzzer, showed this same slow-motion sort-out.
One aspect that will doubtless appeal to those who enjoy a good beat-up, at least on film, is the attitude of the cops. These are not the heroes of the downtrodden, nor are they hard men of the sort to inspire excitable adolescents. These cops are just tired and overworked, and given to bouts of rather excessively enthusiastic violence in their quest for the suspect. I’ve never seen so many men carrying baseball bats, big knives, and what seemed to be iron bars, at least not outside of a Hong Kong triad film. And I’ve never seen the cops break down an apartment door, rummage around, frighten the returning tenant (the suspect’s girlfriend), and then move in with her en masse. It’s as if the rough treatment of suspects is just the entree: what you really have to worry about is when the cop takes you home and feeds you noodles.
I was also taken with the quality of the fight and chase scenes. For once, the fighting was largely unscientific, slow, and without the inevitable “thwock” sounds of fist hitting flesh, but there was a dogged determination and a realism that made the fights totally believable. Woo, described by his colleagues as someone who wants desperately to get in a fight, is not a good fighter. At least, not if your definition of a good fighter includes someone who hits more often than they miss. But he tries, using any means, and just won’t lay down and die. There’s a marvellous fight scene, shown almost totally by the shadows of the participants, which makes it clear that he fights dirty, and often wins only by sheer bloody-mindedness (and probably by irritating his opponents until they give up). Chase scenes, too, give us a blow-by-blow, or stagger-by-stagger, picture of Woo: he takes off after the suspect on foot and won’t quit, his swaggering knees-out walk become a shambling not-quite-collapse that somehow keeps him upright and moving.
Now I could go on and on, wiffling on rapturously about folding chair fu, serious rain, mud wrestling and baseball bats, but I’ll get smacked if I don’t stop soon, so I’ll sum up: Nowhere To Hide won’t fill you with the joy of the chase, but it will fill you with the joy of superb Korean cinema.