Release Date: 01st April 2005 (South Korea)
Running Time: 120 mins.
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Writer: Kim Jee-Woon
Starring: Lee Byung-Hun, Shin Min-A, Kim Yeong-Cheol, Hwang Jung-Min, Kim Roe-Ha, Lee Gi-Yeong, Jin Goo, Kim Hae-Gon, Eric (Moon Jung-Hyuk)
Kim Jee-Woon’s (The Quiet Family) filmography is packed with so many great titles made in such a short space of time it can only be explained by a Faustian pact or sheer brilliance and mastery of genre conventions. A Bittersweet Life is another masterpiece that plays with the conventions of the gangster film.
Sun-Woo (Byung-Hun) is a trusted enforcer who runs a restaurant/hotel for his boss Mr. Kang (Yeong-Cheol). The two are facing trouble from a new and sociopathic gangster named Baek (Jung-Min). Kang has other things on his mind such as his three day trip to Shanghai and the possibility that his young girlfriend Hee-Soo (Min-A) may be seeing a younger man. He sends Sun-Woo to watch over her. Sun-Woo is wary but goes ahead with the job. He was right to be wary because Hee-Soo and the world she inhabits charm Sun-Woo and open his eyes to the desolation of his life. This leads to his cool persona fragmenting under moments of weakness which will place him on the hit list of both his boss and Baek and leave Sun-Woo standing alone.
Life means nothing
Like the protagonists of neo-noir thrillers Drive and Le Samourai, Sun-Woo exists in a macho and nihilistic criminal underworld which demands a person subsumes their existence into their role/organisation and follow harsh rules. Similar to those films, when a girl enters the story the protagonist is forced to make a choice between adhering to those rules or being authentic to himself and breaking them to be with her. What A Bittersweet Life does brilliantly is to display Sun-Woo’s existential self-questioning of his place in the world.
Sun-Woo is just one ego among many in his gang. What separates him is the degree of rigid self-control and awareness he possesses. Through these attributes he has cultivated the social-mask of reliable enforcer which has made him indispensable to his boss who treats him as a confidant.