A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon: 2005)

Sunwoo is the very trusted right hand man of underworld boss Kang. When Kang plans to goes away for three days he asks Sunwoo to keep an eye on his young girlfriend whom he suspects may be cheating on him. Sunwoo keeps an eye on the girl who begins to intrigue him, while keeping things under control at his boss’s hotel. Sunwoo is a man who likes to remain in control at all times – using whatever means are necessary. One day he makes an uncharacteristically merciful decision, the result of which changes his life completely…

It would be too easy to class A Bittersweet Life just as yet another revenge thriller coming out of Korea, too easy to compare it to Park Chan-wook’s powerhouse ‘Vengeance’ trilogy. A Bittersweet Life does have a plot in which revenge becomes the central aspect, but the film doesn’t really fit into the same category as Oldboy (Park Chan-wook / 2003) because other than the revenge theme it is quite different – casually re-writing the ‘gangster needs to get payback’ plot with lashings of John Woo, Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn / 2004), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese / 1976)- and even Tarantino – but mixing it all up to give us something totally unique and even quite extraordinary. To give too much of the plot away would be a crime against the film – although it’s actually fairly simple and straightforward without much sub-plot. This really works in the films favour as it always feels immediate, building slowly throughout up until its amazing ending.

Put simply, the cast of A Bittersweet Life is fantastic. Lee Byung-hung gives yet another memorable performance, here as the straight faced Sunwoo, looking as sharp as hell in his tailor-made suits and also performing the action scenes with an unnerving energy. For any other actor this would be a career defining performance, but Lee Byung-hung carries these kind of roles with total confidence and he never looks better than when under the direction of Kim Jee-woon (check out the recent The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) for proof!). Kim Young-chul is also very good as boss Kang, bringing one of those performances that only older actors can really pull off with a real presence – a confidence that can seemingly onlt come with age and experience. All of the rest of the  performances in the film are equally as good – and that’s saying something.

The other star of the show – director Kim Jee-Woon (who gave also gave us the marvellous A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Foul King (2000)and The Quiet Family (1998)) – embellishes the film at every opportunity with fancy camera work and a brilliant soundtrack. Like A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life has something of an eerie almost ghost-like quality which makes sense its cinematic approach towards ‘life’, managing to push it up into a heightened sense of reality. At times the film is quite poetic but long tracking shots and moments of silence are punctuated with violence – check out the scene where Sunwoo should be trying to fall asleep and is casually flicking the light on and off. Every shot in the film appears to have been meticulously planned and painstakingly created. The ‘cool’ suits that gangsters wear in these films look even crisper than ever, lit as if they were in a commercial and Jee-woon isn’t a man who is afraid to make the most of his architecture and colour schemes.

If you enjoyed the way in which A Tale of Two Sisters subverted its genre, then A Bittersweet Life does the same for the gangster film. Simple on the surface but complex underneath, it’s one of those films that you will probably re-watch fairly quickly. As much a referential piece to the other films it appears inspired by, it’s a film that is a genuine pleasure to watch throughout. From a team of actors and filmmakers who appear at the top of their game – and from a director who doesn’t seem to know what anything less than the top of his game is – A Bittersweet Life is one of the ‘great’ films from the last few years. In fact performance-wise, visually, musically and thematically, A Bittersweet Life is just about perfect.

달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Produced by Park Dong-ho, Eugene Lee
Written by Kim Jee-woon
Starring Lee Byung-hun, Kim Yeong-cheol, Shin Min-ah, Hwang Jung-min, Kim roi-ha

A Bittersweet Life Image © Bom Film Productions Co. Ltd