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.
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.
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 he 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.
Lee 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.