Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Lee Myung-se, 1999)

Nowhere to hide posterOne of Korea’s foremost visual stylists, Lee Myung-se’s work has often been under appreciated at the time of its release. His desire to experiment finds fertile ground in the intensely kinetic ode to the police procedural, Nowhere to Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다, Injeongsajeong bol Geos Eobsda). A tale of cops and robbers, Nowhere to Hide follows a cop who talks too much on the trail of a silent assassin who is, in fact, an expert at hiding in plain sight through the art of disguise. Moving quickly from one intense, beautifully choreographed set piece to the next, Lee draws inspiration from the crime-tinged tragedies of old Hollywood and beyond whilst embracing those of his home nation in the classic twin pairing of actors Ahn Sung-ki as the enigmatic assassin, and Park Joong-hoon as the bullheaded cop hot on his trail.

Lee opens in black and white with Inspector Woo (Park Joong-hoon) in full on gangster mode as he wanders through a ruined landscape, pausing only to tie his shoelace while the pulsing, punkish music continues in the background, before he walks in on an entire room of besuited gangsters and calmly sits down to introduce himself. Sometime later, Sungmin (Ahn Sung-ki), in sunshades and trench coat, patiently bides his time before committing a dramatic murder and making off with a mysterious briefcase.

What follows then is a game of cat and mouse as Woo chases the ghost of Sungmin through dingy back allies and neighbourhood dive bars, taking his more serious partner, Kim (Jang Dong-kun), whose more primary motivations include his family or more particularly his little girl, along for the ride. Woo lives only for his work, drawing more thrill from the chase than he is likely to admit. Through his pursuit of Sungmin, Woo draws closer to a side of himself he hoped to avoid, burying his natural rebelliousness in service of the law. We see him brutally interrogate suspects, even at one point trussing one up like a prize pig and suspending him between two desks in the middle of the police station. It is, in this sense, Woo who is left with “nowhere to hide”. As a young man, he had a violent streak which might well have led him into crime if his father had not pointed him towards the police, but he can no longer claim to be very much different than the quarry he pursues. His true nature has been laid bare by his opposing number.

Woo’s rage and unpredictable energy are tempered by Kim’s evenhandedness, but after a job goes wrong and Kim kills a suspect by mistake he starts to fall apart. Suddenly Woo cannot rely on Kim to save him from himself and then tragically fails to save Kim during another operation, leaving him open to serious injury. His quest is now as much one of vengeance and personal feeling as it is of justice.

Sungmin, by contrast, says not one word in the entirety of the film. A felt presence more than a seen one, he slips in and out of personas, escaping from the scene in various disguises as a figure more of legend than of reality. A close relationship with a bar hostess girlfriend is Woo’s way in to Sungmin’s world, correctly identifying a weakness and pressing it, pursuing a more concrete route to the centre of Sungmin’s existence than simply tracking him through the shady netherworld in which he lives.

The two men run from and mirror each other as pictures of action and stillness, resistance and urgency. Through a relentless pursuit of capture or escape, neither can evade the shadow of himself, each moving closer to their true selves as repressed elements surface and threaten to destroy the whole. Woo and Sungmin are each on a mutually destructive pursuit of the self as much as they are for their own, self defined goals.

Lee frames all of this within his characteristically ironic world view, painting the drama as comedy imbued with its own kind of cartoonish slapstick. Throwing in cinematic homages from a brief nod to Battleship Potemkin to an ending plucked straight out of The Third Man, Lee mixes freeze frames with an odd jump dissolve technique which lends his intensely beautiful choreography an impressionistic, fleeting quality. Two men chase the shadow of the other, engaged in a desperate game of hide and seek, but when the game is up neither may like what they see.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Robbery sequence (dialogue free)

M (엠, Lee Myung-se, 2007)

“More specific, less poetic” the distressed author hero of Lee Myung-se’s M (엠) repeatedly types after a difficult conversation with his editor. Almost a meta comment on Lee’s process, it’s just as well that it’s advice he didn’t take – M is a noir poem, a metaphor for an artist’s torture, and a living ghost story in which a man shifts between worlds of memory, haunted and hunted by unidentifiable pain. Reality, dream, and madness mingle and merge as a single kernel of confusion causes widespread panic in a desperate writer’s already strained mind.

A young woman haunts the screen, pleading with us to remember her and be sad. She is a dream, a visitation into the mind of blocked writer Han Min-woo (Gang Dong-Won) whose publishers are eagerly awaiting the completion of his next manuscript. Back in the real world, the same young woman appears around Min-woo but seems to be in an entirely different plane of existence, completely invisible to the man she claims to love. Eventually Min-woo enters a mysterious back alley bar and finally engages with the girl, Mimi (Lee Yeon-Hee), before blacking out and forgetting all about the whole thing.

Reality resets once again and we realise Min-woo is about to be married to Eun-hye (Kong Hyo-Jin) – the daughter of a wealthy man who seems to approve of the marriage if not, exactly, Min-woo’s literary career. Min-woo should be happy – he’s getting married to a woman he appears to care for, has been successful in his career, and has everything pretty much set for life at only 29. Min-woo is not happy. Persistent writer’s block means he’s written almost nothing with a deadline approaching, he’s worrying about money, and somehow or other he can’t quite commit to Eun-hye – there is something nagging at his mind, but try as he might he cannot say what.

Min-woo is worried enough to visit a psychiatrist but the doctor offers little more than a bottle of prozac and an instruction to call back in the morning. His mental state is clearly fracturing but even objectively his manner is strange, suddenly shouting or issuing orders in a shocking break from his generally mild mannered exterior. As if the mounting pressure of his overdue manuscript weren’t enough, Min-woo is extremely insecure in his literary talents. He views himself as a successful hack, berating those who dare to praise his work as fans of cheap trash.

Yet his internal world seems to be defined by potboiler hardboiled with its rain drenched streets, foggy avenues, and smokey bars peopled by miserable whiskey drinking men and omniscient bartenders. Describing the process of piecing his fractured mind back together as re-editing a film in which several frames are missing, Min-woo quickly becomes lost inside his own internal landscape, trying to locate the wound to stem the bleed but finding it ever elusive. Mimi is more than a spectral figment of his imagination. A living personification of the living past, her presence haunts him with the power of mystery, like something unforgettable which has long been forgotten.

In the end, Min-woo’s creative madness is a salve for an internal scar but its final resolution may be its own undoing. A love story and a ghost story, Min-woo’s crisis is every man’s obsession with lost love. Guilt mingles with pain and regret but also with existential confusion and unresolvable loss. As he later puts it, you lose things, often the things which are most important to you – it is a part (and a privilege, in someone else’s words) of being alive. You try to bury your pain in oblivion but eventually the things you’ve lost will be returned in unclear or unexpected ways. Min-woo may have made peace with himself (or this aspect of himself), allowed a ghost to bid him goodbye, but then again, perhaps he only dreamed himself free and is forever condemned to remember and be sad.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gagman (개그맨, Lee Myung-se, 1988)

gagman cover

Is everything we see a waking dream or does it just appear that way? This question posed (or perhaps dreamed) by the protagonist of Lee Myung-se’s debut becomes a kind of key for unlocking much of what has gone before as Lee freewheels between fantasy and reality as his cast of movie obsessed dreamers attempt to inhabit their very own stretch of celluloid within the “real” world. Released in 1988, Gagman (개그맨) catches Korea in a moment of transition. Newly free of a lengthy dictatorship and back on the world stage after hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country was eager to promote itself as a modern liberal democracy. Hence, the arts were the first to feel the new freedom with young directors given the chance to create boundary pushing films and show just how far Korea could go. Lee was just one of these directors but Gagman is no political treatise (at least, not directly) preferring to experiment with form as a farcical exercise in meta comedy.

Cinema obsessed comedian Lee Jong-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) wants nothing more than to make the next great Korean movie which every one of the 40 million Koreans will fall in love with. Consequently he’s blagged his way onto the film set of a top director to whom he’s already sent his “prize-winning” script. Eventually thrown out, Jong-sae does not lose heart but promises the lead role in his movie to his equally film obsessed barber Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-ho) whom he sends out on “research” missions walking into banks and asking about security. A fortuitous meeting with a feisty young woman in a cinema, Oh Sun-young (Hwang Cine), provides a another impetus for Jong-sae’s filmmaking dreams and so when he unexpectedly gets his hands on a gun after an encounter with a deserting soldier things just got real in a very unexpected way.

Lee signals his intent early on with a static camera shot focusing on the barber, Do-suk, as he waxes on about Kirk Douglas in the Vikings whilst simultaneously remarking on the fall in quality of his beloved dog meat. Do-suk feels that when it comes right down to it, Korean mutts are the best – not these scrawny poodles that cheap restaurant owners are substituting for the real thing. His comment might easily go for himself and Jong-sae, two scrappy working class Korean guys trying to make it in a walled off industry, but interestingly enough bar a mention of Sorrow Even Up in Heaven, Lee’s references are to European and American cinema rather than that of his homeland.

The most obvious of these lies in the central gag – that the gagman has a “funny” face. Ahn Sung-ki is saddled with a Charlie Chaplin moustache throughout the film (with the added bonus that it of course looks like a Hitler moustache to European/American viewers) and plays Jong-sae as someone who’s constantly doing a Chaplin impression with his strange walks and silent cinema plaintive looks. Ahn even begins layering his performance so that we get Charlie Chaplin impersonating Brando in the Godfather to recite the melancholy monologue which seems to open Jong-sae’s unfilmable script. For Jong-sae his existence is cinema, the life he lives is unreal or surreal always with an added dose of narrative in the ongoing story of his rise to greatness as the most famous Korean filmmaker of them all.

Fantasist as he is, Jong-sae has a way of pulling other people into his unrealisable dreams including the barber Do-suk and a young woman who unexpectedly starts canoodling with him in a cinema in an attempt to avoid some other creepy guys. Oh Sun-young is almost a mirror image of Jong-sae in her pragmatic realism though she too is looking at the stars and willing to engage in fantasy to get there. It is she who first suggests that the “research” they’ve been doing might have a more practical application and she is also the one to maintain a calm approach to their eventual need for escape but, even if she always has one foot in reality, Sun-young cannot escape the gravitational pull of Jong-sae’s strange dreamverse. Do-suk, by contrast, is a willing convert – just as obsessed with cinema and comics as Jong-sae, his desperation to be a part of the movies and unwavering faith in his friend lead him to give up everything in service of art even going so far as to get painful eye surgery to increase his box office potential (apparently a meta dig at a Korean celebrity who did something similar).

In keeping with the Chaplin theme Lee’s humorous universe is defined by slapstick and absurdity, his dialogue needlessly theatrical and mannered with a melodramatic seriousness. Nevertheless Lee makes the most of his canvas as the film goes on behind Jong-sae while he enters one of his reveries as in one particularly amusing scene in which he attempts to declare his love to Sun-young without noticing that she’s long wandered off and been replaced by Do-suk. Despite the cartoonish, comedic tone the atmosphere is a melancholy one reflecting the final destination of Jong-sae’s film project but also of his continuing inability to integrate the two distinct universes into one concrete whole which could be termed “reality”. In this Lee returns to that first question but this time he asks us as cinema lovers which world it is we live in, and which it is that is the more “real”.


Gagman is available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can also watch the whole thing legally and for free via their YouTube channel!