Sometimes just a scant few minutes of a movie can build a permanent home in your memory. Scenic Routes is a feature devoted to exploring cinema's most remarkable individual sequences: the sublime, the exasperating, the iconic, the ineffable.
Lonely conviction can be a frustrating thing. For almost a decade now, I’ve been raving about the gonzo formal majesty of a little-known South Korean filmmaker named Lee Myung-se, with only a chorus of chirping crickets for an audience. That’s largely because few people have seen the guy’s work—Nowhere To Hide got an eyeblink U.S. release in 2000 (buried in that year’s Christmas deluge), but Lee’s subsequent films, Duelist (2005) and M (2007), vanished after their quick tour of the festival circuit. That bewilders me, because when Lee is firing on even half his cylinders, he’s among the most astonishing visual stylists in the world, a cinematic impressionist virtually without peer. (“I feel there are things I did first that Wong Kar-wai does,” Lee once grumbled in an interview, when asked about the most obvious comparison, “and people identify these things with him because he became famous.”) Scott Tobias has my back on this, but whenever he and I talk about Lee, sadness clouds our faces: Must we take this knowledge to our graves? For years, I’ve longed to just sit readers down and show them any few minutes from Nowhere To Hide, confident that I’ll at least pique their interest. And one of the many awesome things about this new column is that I can finally do precisely that.
I ran into a dilemma almost immediately, however. Which few minutes? Nowhere To Hide is no ordinary film, which is what drives some folks crazy. As a narrative, it’s perfunctory nearly to the point of nonexistence—cops chase criminal, the end. As for theme or meaning, forget it; to the extent this film “says” anything, it’s pretty much a paean to police brutality. Lee has just one goal here, and that’s to make every single shot as preternaturally cool as possible. Over the course of 100 relentless minutes, this emphasis on visual dynamism to the exclusion of everything else comes to feel avant-garde—the effect is cumulative, and I wasn’t sure which individual sequence, removed from context, makes the strongest case. I finally settled upon the murder that sets the film’s ostensible “plot” in motion, even though its lyricism isn’t exactly representative of Lee’s hyperbolic bulldozer approach. Here’s the calm before (and after) the storm. Well, and here’s the storm, too, actually. Lee certainly wouldn’t want to leave that out.
The time counter that kicks this sequence off has no narrative function whatsoever. Hell, I’ve seen the film three times, and I still have no idea who the victim is or why he’s killed, much less why it would matter that it’s 12:11:02 p.m. But that brief, arrhythmic countdown—note that the edits quickly go out of sync with the clock—does immediately serve notice that Lee’s focus here will be on fleeting instants for their own sake. To that end, he makes extensive use of freeze-frames, dissolves, dissolves between freeze-frames, and that odd stutter-step slow-motion effect that most cinephiles now associate with Wong Kar-wai. (Chungking Express predates Nowhere To Hide by several years, but Lee’s career dates back to 1989, and those early films are rarely screened, so for all I know he did get there first, as he claims.) Every moment is arrested, almost commemorated. Even when the killer’s henchmen (presumably) are beating the shit out of the victim’s bodyguard (presumably) with baseball bats, Lee chooses to make it background noise, holding the frame on an elderly man who sleeps through the whole mêlée, so the visual emphasis remains on stillness rather than on frenetic motion.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the murder itself, which is among the most oddly beautiful in all of cinema. Like a horror director goosing the audience with an apparent attack that turns out to be just a stray cat, Lee first serves up a threatening, disorienting shot, as the victim, huddled in a doorway to stay dry, watches somebody leap in his direction—an image we see as a reflection in a shuddering glass door, violating the carefully established stability of the shot. But it’s just somebody ducking out of the rain. Death arrives much more stealthily, in the stutter-step form of the killer’s machete slicing through the victim’s just-raised umbrella, which almost looks like a curtain being drawn. The expressions on both men’s faces as they stare each other down are unexpected—the victim seems resigned, the killer vaguely apologetic. (Again, we know, and will know, exactly nothing about the motivation for this crime, apart from seeing the killer grab the victim’s briefcase.) And then there’s the blade slicing the victim’s outstretched hand, deliberately unrealistic blood running down his open palm like a brushstroke across a fresh canvas. It’s just plain gorgeous.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the eerie-childish soundtrack to this violent act is Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb going “dee dee da dee dee dee.” Having just tackled Boogie Nights in Scenic Routes’ debut column, I was a bit reluctant to immediately choose another scene set to pop music, but Lee’s use of the Bee Gees’ “Holiday” is distinct from PTA’s use of Night Ranger and Rick Springfield. Nowhere To Hide is set in the present, not in 1967, and while “Holiday” was a minor chart hit, it’s certainly nowhere near as emblematic as dozens of songs from the group’s disco heyday. (I confess I knew nothing of the early Bee Gees prior to seeing this film, with the exception of “I Started A Joke”—and that I knew from its use in Penn & Teller Get Killed. Kinda sad.) Nor do I get the sense that it’s being employed ironically—this is not Mr. Blonde grooving to “Stuck In The Middle With You,” even though we see the killer pop the CD (reflected in his eyeglasses) into the car stereo as the scene begins. Lee evidently chose “Holiday” strictly for its organ-tinged melancholy, and perhaps for those nonsense lyrics, given his stubborn devotion to image (the cinematic equivalent of melody, I would argue) over narrative.
Still, when I remember this scene, I don’t often hear the music. What sticks in my head are any number of vivid details, which Lee gives seemingly undue attention. The hypersaturated yellow of the leaves fluttering in the wind as the storm begins, and their orange-tinged reflection on the car’s exterior. Raindrops bouncing off the car roof to meet additional drops still falling, creating a lovely miniature fountain. The way the victim crumples onto the steps in stages, still clutching his slashed umbrella, now in the rough shape of a bow tie. The postmortem close-up of his watch (emphasizing instants again via the second hand), and Lee’s typically offbeat dissolve to an object (the lamppost) that couldn’t be any less round. And then one of my all-time favorite shots, seen so briefly that it’s almost subliminal: the close-up of the chalk outline on the steps, late at night, in which it seems to float on the surface of the water. If this stuff works for you, find a copy of the DVD post-haste, as the entire film is pitched at this remarkable level of abstraction, albeit generally with much more sheer aggression. (Also worth a look is Duelist, which for its first hour is another dazzling case of Style 237, Substance nil; then it goes soggy. Avoid M, which only proves that Lee can’t do narrative to save his life.)
But since the comments allow this to be a dialogue, let me close by asking you guys about the one aspect of this scene I’ve never quite understood, even though I kind of love it. We see the little schoolgirl hopping down the steps, observed by the killer, who’s still waiting in the car. A handful of raindrops fall, and she looks up at the sky, her inquisitive expression quickly frozen. Then Lee cuts back to the long shot of the steps, with the girl still looking skyward; there’s a series of what appear to be lightning flashes; and then one huge blinding flash, and she’s gone. I’m fully content to accept this as an inexplicable bit of visual poetry, but I’d never really thought about what it’s meant to suggest, whether metaphorically or emotionally, until I sat down to analyze the sequence. At which point I realized that I still don’t have any idea. Is it as simple as Lee presaging the snuffing of an innocent life to come, or am I missing something?