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Style over substance in 'Nowhere to Hide'

2003/12/26 Source

In "Kill Bill", Uma Thurman slashes her way through Japan in a yellow "Game of Death" jumpsuit, appending 1970s girl power and Tarantino violence to the director's video-geek worship of the samurai/kung fu genres.

From a stylistic point of view, only "Nowhere To Hide" (1999) gained the same kind of cult status in Korea, seamlessly winding through film genres, non-film media and the web of film history with a stylistic panache that will leave you breathless for at least the flawless first 15 minutes.

Not that this tale of a bunch of hoodlum cops, in particular Detective Woo's (Park Joong-hoon) attempt to bring drug trafficker Chang Sung-min (Ahn Sung-gi) to justice is full of severed limbs or a cliff-hanger ending.

In contrast, the narrative gasps for air beneath a deluge of ultra authorial intrusiveness and a wave of Houdini-like edits that leave you blinking in wonderment.

Four plot elements - chases, stakeouts, Chang eluding capture in numerous "Saint"-like disguises and police brutality - are deployed on a rotational basis and pinned together by Woo's comically grotesque depiction of Woo as a hard-boiled Quasimodo cop.

Although the plot is ultimately lacking in dramatic tension, it never falls apart thanks to the creative genius of cult writer-director Lee Myung-se, who uses Western and Samurai elements to add color to his characters/ scenes (especially the Ennio Morricone harmonica associated with Woo, and the "barber shop" scene involving a tense standoff).

Lee clearly revels in the power of his filmmaking tools, whether it is morphing Chang into a monster with multiple dissolves, pastiching elements from 1970's cop shows, or using Star Wars-style wipes. At one point, a rooftop slugfest with Woo and goon Meathead (Park Sang-myun) turns into a waltz, then incorporates elements of Chinese theater to tremendous comic effect.

At times the actors' talents and narrative threads are subsumed under the heavy style. Jang Dong-kun is engaging as "Sleepy" but is caricatured instead of given any real depth and some social commentary about under-age rape seems misplaced.

"Nowhere To Hide" is strongly recommended if only for its glossy imaging buoyed up by a punk rock score that gets progressively better and peaks at the highlights - all in color - that play over the final credits.

By Matt Hodges

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