The tactics used by the cops in Myung-se Lee’s “Nowhere to Hide” to extract information from suspects would make the cops on TV’s “NYPD Blue” blush. They are, in a word, hardcore, and beating up on a suspect with bats and chairs is definitely not done as a last resort. At one point the cops have a suspect hog-tied and hoisted on a stick that sits between two desks, as if he was being roasted! That type of relentless and determined behavior also describes Joong-Hoon Park’s Woo, a police Detective assigned to bring in a killer who murdered a gangster-type, stole his briefcase, and is now trying to sell the briefcase to other gangster-types. What I’m trying to say is: the briefcase is irrelevant; it’s simply the McGuffin — the engine that sets the film in motion.
Once in motion, the movie chronicles Woo, his partner Kim (Dong-kun Jang), and their crack police unit as they track down Sungmin through various means, including his hired thugs, girlfriend, and even his dead mother. This is done over a series of months, with the passing of time revealed in creative title cards. The investigation is not of the “brilliant cop solves everything” variety, but rather a gradual and elongated (re: more realistic) manhunt that slowly develops. For example: Witness A leads the cops to suspect A, who leads them to suspect B, who in turn sends them looking for suspect C, who may or may not have information to the main bad guy’s whereabouts. In that way, the investigation of “Nowhere to Hide” is quite well thought out, although a long action sequence onboard a train toward the end does come somewhat out of the blue. But I can forgive that, especially when the rest have been so good.
Along the way, writer/director Myung-se Lee indulges in every conceivable camera setup and tricks that he can think of. With help from cinematographer Kwang-seok Jeong (“Our Twisted Hero”), Lee makes “Nowhere to Hide” look good. This movie crackles with crisp scenes that constantly make one go, “Wow.” Lee almost drowns us in style in the film’s first 20 minutes alone. Luckily, the rest of the film is more substantial in story, although the imageries never let up, and they never once become tiresome. The film rarely has any lulls, always managing to be engaging even when not much is happening onscreen. A study of motion describes much of “Nowhere to Hide.” Director Lee is so immersed with lingering raindrops, brushing fabric, and fluttering snowflakes that the movie feels lyrical, like poetry in motion.
But nice pictures aren’t the only thing “Nowhere to Hide” has going for it. All the main players back up the beautiful imagery with terrific performances. Joong-Hoon Park (“Say Yes”) strikes the perfect note as the erratic and sometimes not-always-bright Woo, who seems to have more guts than anything else. (And if he wasn’t a cop, it’s not hard to imagine him as a two-bit hood.) He’s partnered with the more thoughtful Kim (Dong-kun Jan, “Friend”), who has to constantly keep Woo from going off the deep end and himself from becoming like Woo in the process. It’s a tightrope, but Kim walks it as best he can, until he is unable to hold on any longer. Kim’s collapse proves that Woo’s “loose cannon” behavior is nothing more than a defensive mechanism, something his partner has yet to develop — much to his own detriment.
The two men share a relationship built on mutual need, and they need a man like Sungmin to give their job, and life, meaning. The lead villain is Sung-kee Ahn (“Last Witness”), an elusive killer with innate intelligence and sheer guts, not to mention physical skills. It makes him the perfect opponent for Woo and Kim, on the simple basis that he embodies both of their personalities, but in one man.
About halfway through the film, there is a potential romance between Woo and Juyon (Ji-Woo Choi), Sungmin’s devoted girlfriend. Luckily, Lee avoids the cop-watching-bad-guy’s-girlfriend-falls-for-girlfriend-and-vice-versa clich’ that is so prevalent in many cops-and-robbers movies. As a result of the absent of forced romance, “Nowhere to Hide” is better off for it. It wouldn’t be too chauvinistic to say that this is a man’s movie, the kind filled with rampant testosterone and free wielding bats, and it has no room for sappy, unconvincing romance. Our perception of Woo would simply not allow for such a radical change in character.
“Nowhere to Hide” is a very hard movie to categorize. It’s mostly a crime drama because Woo and Kim’s manhunt for Sungmin take up the bulk of the movie’s 1:50 running time. But the film also has some light moments, such as when Woo takes on a boxer and the scene shifts to something that resembles a shadow play splashed against a wall. (You’ll understand when you see it.)
Through it all, “Nowhere to Hide” is never boring, never stops moving, and its barrage of brilliant imagery is a constant from opening frame to final credits. This film, as the saying goes, is good stuff.
Myung-se Lee (director) / Myung-se Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Joong-Hoon Park …. Detective Woo
Sung-kee Ahn …. Chang Sungmin
Dong-Kun Jang …. Detective Kim
Ji-Woo Choi …. Juyon