Then, four minutes in, Lee changes everything. Depicting the killing that sets the plot in motion, he empties the screen, focusing on a Busan landmark, a steep urban staircase down which a lone schoolgirl hops. Rock music gives way to the plaintive Bee Gees ballad “Holiday” and the pace slows accordingly. Around the gray stairs is a wash of brilliant, almost painfully saturated color, dominated by a blanket of yellow autumn leaves. The percussive, pulpy violence of the opening is replaced by a close-up of a single blade flashing down and a bright streak of blood across a face. In a fleeting visual coup, black-suited gangsters appear on the stairs, clambering up from the bottom of the frame like two-dimensional figures in a brush painting.
And then boom, we’re in yet another movie, though this time it’s the one Lee more or less sticks with. Woo, who wears his cockiness like a uniform, walks into a noodle shop and throws some attitude at another customer. “Think this is a cops-and-robbers movie?” the weary proprietor asks at the very moment that “Nowhere to Hide” becomes a cops-and-robbers movie. The other customer, who happens to be the killer, disappears out the back of the shop.
At this point, the plot kicks in, and Woo, Kim and their team of latter-day Keystone Kops spend the balance of the film — 72 ever more frustrating days, in movie time — pursuing the gangster, Chang (Ahn Sung-ki). Chases, interrogations, stakeouts and near-misses bring them steadily, incrementally closer to the inevitable showdown.
Lee’s virtuosity never flags, and it also never gets wearying. Every idea seems to come along in the right place, at the right moment — a nighttime fight that morphs into a shadow play, with the combatants’ flat black images flowing across a white wall like Balinese puppets; a rolling, slow-motion, freeze-framed melee that anticipates a signature scene four years later in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy”; a dusty road trip ending in a barbershop standoff straight out of a western (either Hollywood or Hong Kong).
If you can negotiate the shifting tones and rhythms, Lee’s guerrilla-like inventiveness will keep a nearly constant smile on your face. That “Nowhere to Hide” isn’t quite like any other cop-and-gangster movie explains why you probably haven’t seen it. Once you have, the genre will never feel quite the same.
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