A Bittersweet Life

A Bittersweet Life Review Header

A Bittersweet Life                                                         A Bittersweet Life Movie Poster

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 Contemplates his Existence in A Bittersweet Life

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.

Kang and Sun-Woo Converse in A Bittersweet Life

Sun-Woo’s effort in creating his social-mask is reflected in the film’s production design. His emptiness as an individual is revealed by his sterile and bare apartment while his desire to reflect what his boss wants is reflected in the hotel’s environment which Sun-woo inhabits with far more ease. It is a place where everything has a high gloss and lustre and misleading beauty. The colour scheme of deep black and red is menacing when you know the organisation behind the hotel. The cars are sleek black anonymous vehicles that are polished so that surfaces reflect everything from moving branches to the faces of people who are about to get slammed into the bodywork. It is intoxicating and Sun-Woo thrives in it but it is ultimately empty. Who makes him realise this? The girl.

Hee-Soo Up Close in A Bittersweet Life

Everybody has their own life

Hee-Soo is a genuine and sympathetic character who defiantly lives her own life and is true to herself. She inspires Sun-Woo’s growing infatuation which is displayed in simple scenes where a camera watches him gazing at her fine legs and features in a series of shots cutting between Sun-Woo’s eyes and Hee-Soo’s body. It’s not just a physical attraction as Hee-Soo and Her Band in A Bittersweet Lifehe laps up the refined culture she comes from as shown when he sees her play her cello with a band in a studio and he is transported to another world. But Sun-Woo is trapped in the criminal underworld and the film shows his separation from Hee-Soo and normality by shooting him through wire mesh and lattices. His boss will find out and violence will consume him.

Fights are a mixture of brutality and speed. Sun-Woo is a fan of using the environment to his advantage and seeing him fight is exciting and unpredictable. Hands get crushed, fingers blown off, and brains are used to repaint walls and people die gasping in pain, snot covered and dazed, bewildered as Sun-Woo proves that existence trumps his essence. The increasing sillyness and brutality shows the mental state of Sun-Woo and the nature of the film. Some of the filming techniques are excellent and at points we get over the shoulder camera view and corridor shots akin to Old Boy’s bravura fight.

Sun-Woo in Battle in A Bittersweet LifeLee Byung-Hun as Sun-Woo is magnetic. He dresses in sharp suits and gives off a mysterious and engaging coolness. At times meditative and cautious, he has a deep well of rage that he can tap when he confronts rivals. His athleticism and dexterity is impressive as he handles fights. This is his movie but the other cast members give great support. Kim Yeong-Cheol, who plays Kang, conveys the toughness, quiet confidence, and ruthlessness of a veteran gangster. You can see how his mob, Sun-Woo included, might look up to him like a father. Hwang Jung-Min who plays Baek with his distinctive knife scar is like Pesci in Goodfellas, one second everything is fine but he is capable of losing himself in ugly violence the next. Shin Min-A is called upon to be beautiful and defiant and she does so nicely.

Then comes that ending which makes you want to re-watch the film and re-evaluate everything that has come before. It reminds you that you have been on a stylish existential romp and we all do that at some time but maybe not so violently. Overall this is an exciting and unpredictable film, highly stylish and highly original.


6 thoughts on “A Bittersweet Life

  1. goregirl

    I think we’ve had a conversation about Jee-woon Kim before. You reviewed The Quiet Family not too long ago and I think you also gave it a 5/5. A Bittersweet Life is something else…what a director!! The man knows how to create an intriguing character! Maybe he should write the script for the Prometheus sequel 😉

    1. I still haven’t reviewed A Tale of Two Sisters but here’s a preview – 5/5. Kim Jee-Woon has dabbled in sci-fi with Doomsday Book and I’d love to see what he would have made of Prometheus.

  2. Hmmm, it sounds too violent for me, but — “[T]hen comes that ending which makes you want to re-watch the film and re-evaluate everything that has come before.” Darn, that gets me really interested, especially the “unpredictable” added in your final sentence. That makes it sound like a clever film and I do like those.

    You do know that Korean names (like Japanese ones) are surname first, right? I was just wondering why you were referring to the actors by their first names. Ignore my comment if you think I’m overstepping boundaries here. I just do a lot of editing (undergrad essays) in real life so I get kind of stuck on these things… :-p

    1. This may not be your cup of tea because there’s a lot of violence and it is so freaking cool…!!! Sorry, I’m getting carried away. It’s very smart in the way it takes all of those gangster genre conventions and turns them on their head and presents them in a lively and exciting way.

      My Korean is non existent but I refer to Japanese names in the western way as well – given name first. Could you point out the mistake because I should probably adopt the culturally appropriate way _(._.)_

      1. Sometimes I can handle (some) violence. I just end up covering my eyes while watching. 😀

        As for names – the Western way would also be reference by surname (unless perhaps you are personally acquainted). You actually do list the names the Korean way at the beginning. Lee Byung-Hun –> Lee = surname, Byung-Hun = first name. (It’s easy to distinguish as Korean names are nearly always 1 syllable for surname, 2 syllables for first name.) Later in the review you write “Byung-Hun”, which is a first name reference – that could be seen as ‘inappropriate’ (‘impolite’) according to standard conventions.

        I think you can do it whichever way you want… I give names the Korean/Japanese way (but that’s by personal conviction) and when referring to them it’s by surname for real people or complete names if surnames are shared (which is standard convention). With fictional characters I use what whatever they are referred to within the film.

      2. But the violence is sooo stylish and cool and at times it’s funny. Sorry getting carried away again.

        Thank you for illuminating how to reference Korean names. I speak a decent amount of Japanese but know very little about Korea outside of its cinema and modern history/tech. I think now would be a good time to learn more before I look even more foolish than usual 😛

        You can bet I’ll refer to your comment when I come to review other films – Kick the Moon next!

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