I first saw Kim Jee-Woon's A Bittersweet Life at a film festival several years ago. I remember the image in the festival guide they used to advertise the film was of a man and a woman standing next to each other. It was such a bland and unassuming photo that I went into the screening with zero expectations... I left the screening wondering if that image dissuaded people from seeing a near-masterpiece.
A Bittersweet Life is anything but bland and unassuming. It's a glorious Korean crime film with shades of Taxi Driver, Scarface and Le Samouraï. It opened my eyes to a national cinema I had yet to explore.
The plot is pure pulp. Our hero, Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun), is a loyal enforcer for crime boss Mr. Kang (Kim Young-cheol). His boss suspects that his young lover is cheating on him and asks Sun-woo to follow her while he's out of town. If it turns out she is having an affair, “either call me or kill them both yourself,” he says coldly. When Sun-woo discovers his boss's suspicions are correct, he can't bring himself to finish the task and decides to let the lovers go free. When Mr. Kang finds out about this, he feels betrayed and Sun-woo becomes a marked man.
Three things elevate this film above its pulp-like plot. The first is how gorgeously shot and choreographed the fight sequences are. The centrepiece to the film is a daring escape attempt by Sun-woo where he tries to fight his way out of a dozen or so captors utilising his fists, flaming pieces of wood, cement walls, and a cellphone battery. The climax is equally thrilling. Secondly, the performances are outstanding. Lee Byung-hun plays Sun-woo as the most cool and composed man in the world but frustration is slowly bubbling to the surface. Like Mr. Kang, he too feels betrayed by a gang he was so loyal to for so long. Finally, like a lot of recent Korean films, A Bittersweet Life has a wicked streak of black humour running through it. Witness the scene where Sun-woo regains consciousness to find himself tied and hanging from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse. Suddenly and surreally, a woman enters the frame and casually mops up blood beneath him, ignoring him as she goes... Combine all these with an undercurrent of mysticism (it opens and closes with Buddhist parables) and you have an unforgettable film.
Since I first saw this movie I've tried to get my hands on as many other Korean pictures as I could. This has been a rewarding task; from Park Chan-wook's 'Vengeance trilogy', to Bong Joon-ho's cliché-defying genre films, to the love stories of Kwak Jae-yong and everything in between. Korean cinema is my favourite world cinema and if you haven't explored it for yourself, A Bittersweet Life is a great place to start.
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