A Bittersweet Life (2005) Movie Review

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In many respects, Kim Ji-woon’s “A Bittersweet Life” is the anti-thesis of a traditional Asian gangster film, and the script seems to take most of its hints from American revenge movies like Tony Scott’s recent “Man on Fire” and “The Punisher”, albeit without the idiotic nature of the latter film. Narratively, the film resembles the Kevin Costner 1990 picture called, appropriately enough, “Revenge” (which, coincidentally, was also directed by Tony Scott). None of this makes “A Bittersweet Life” any less original; if anything, Kim seems keenly aware that he’s not re-inventing the wheel, and uses the audience’s knowledge of similarly themed films to his advantage.

Byung-hun Lee (“Joint Security Area”) is our anti-hero, a somber, friendless enforcer for a vicious gangster named Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim). When Kang plans a trip out of town for a few days, he sends trusted Sun-woo (Lee) to ferry his moll (Min-a Shin, “Volcano High”) about town, with explicit orders to execute her if he discovers she is having an affair. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she is indeed having an affair, and Sun-woo does make the fateful decision not to kill her, a decision that turns his own organization against him, setting the cold killer off on a quest for vengeance, although one suspects he isn’t quite sure why.

Director Ji-woon Kim (“The Quiet Family”) shows the initial encounters between enforcer and moll from Sun-woo’s perspective, using camera angles and tight shots to give us insight into what Sun-woo sees: not the woman, not Hee-soo, but the hair, the way she brushes her hair, the smooth skin on her shoulder, the way she plays with her spoon when she eats. When Sun-woo makes his choice, it’s easy to decipher that it’s not because he’s fallen in love with Hee-soo, because “love” is a word not in his vocabulary. She is simply the spark, the catharsis that frees him to see that he’s living a solitaire existence, and that, despite his cavernous apartment, fine suits, and expensive meals, he really has nothing.

As such, it’s not the story that is important in “A Bittersweet Life”, because frankly, the story is of the inevitable kind. It’s the moments in-between the formulaic beginning and ending that matters. The scene where Sun-woo is spurned into a fit of measured and controlled road rage, or when he hurries to pick up Hee-soo from her violin practice, nervously flicking at his hair as he bounces up the hallway like a ball of energy, only to take a sudden u-turn — physically and emotionally — when Hee-soo’s other lover shows up first. Kim knows he’s crafted a story from a foundation of genre cliché, and instead of pretending otherwise, the director uses them to play games with the audience.

In-between the stylized violence, the harsh bloodletting and dead bodies that pile up with amazing speed, “A Bittersweet Life” is surprisingly funny when you least expect it. In one scene, gangsters are digging a grave for Sun-woo when one of them stops just long enough to see Sun-woo make his escape, to which the gangster turns to his oblivious buddies and quips, “Stop digging. We are so [expletive].” This, mind you, after a sequence of such grand violence orchestrated so insanely that you just know a stuntman or two, or a dozen, must have gone to the hospital that night. Later, Sun-woo tries to buy a gun from some amateur gun smugglers with disastrous results — for them.

The first half of “A Bittersweet Life” occupies itself more with its leading man’s personality, following him as he discovers that he has a need he had never acknowledged before, and the desire to achieve that need overcomes all else. The second half is all sound and fury, and Kim delivers a staggering bodycount, all achieved in brutal, realistic fashion. A major detour from the usual Korean gangster films is the prominent appearance (and needless to say, uses) of firearms in “A Bittersweet Life”. To watch Sun-woo strolling about town, capping gangsters in every body part with the cool of Steve McQueen and the cold, focused efficiency of the Terminator, you would think it was Tarantino, or Peckinpah, or perhaps McQuarrie (for those who have seen “Way of the Gun”) at work instead of a Korean director.

Alas, there’s no real deeper meaning to “A Bittersweet Life”, and assigning one to the film would be foolhardy. This is a simple story of a man who wants more than what he has, but has absolutely no idea how to achieve it. He isn’t in love with Hee-soo, and vice versa. Sun-woo’s quest is, in every way, a pure revenge fantasy played out against a backdrop of blood and violence and gang coda, but as his final encounter with Kang proves, there is no other purpose, no higher calling, to the carnage that the two men have wrought. It is, indeed, a bittersweet life, but it sure was a hell of a roller coaster ride from point A to point B.

Ji-woon Kim (director) / Ji-woon Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Byung-hun Lee …. Sun-woo
Min-a Shin …. Hee-soo
Yeong-cheol Kim …. Kang
Jeong-min Hwang …. Baek


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Author: Nix

Editor/Writer at BeyondHollywood.com. Likes: long walks on the beach and Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic movies. Dislikes: 3D, shaky cam, and shaky cam in 3D. Got a site issue? Wanna submit Movie/TV news? Or to email me in regards to anything on the site, you can do so at nix (at) beyondhollywood.com.
  • maricar_carreon

    bhung hun lee you so sexy, handsome and very hot and very very yummy. im so sad why you die in all ur film. hohoho

  • maricar_carreon

    bhung hun lee you so sexy, handsome and very hot and very very yummy. im so sad why you die in all ur film. hohoho

  • Max Kammler

    Well I watched this brilliant film several times, and before the last time I’ve watched it I would have fully agreed with your review. It is true, it is not the typical Asian gangster movie, there are strong influences from American movies as you said, but also from classic Italo-Westerns, if you look at some parts of the soundtrack, just as some single scenes, f.e. the first meeting with the two weapon-dealers.
    But in my personal opinion there is much more to interpret, looking at the Sun-woo’s character, his motivation to stand up against everyone. He seems emotionless, he stays cool, doesn’t say what he thinks, it’s hard to say if he is in love with Hee-soo, but it seems as if she is just a wakeup-call for him, showing him, that he really has nothing, as you said.
    But in the very end, there are two important scenes, which you didn’t mention, in the first one we see the scene with Hee-soo playing the violin again, just that this time, you see how it ends, she stops playing, smiles at him and he smiles back, he looks very happy.
    Then there is the scene of Sun-woo standing in front of the window, where he suddenly starts shadow-boxing, and looking happy.
    Call me a fool but this little scene was turning my thoughts of his character completely, finding what you said isn’t there, a deeper meaning.
    To me it showed, that Sun-woo is still a child in mind. His coolness is and his ice-cold brutality, are no sign of maturity, it is simply how he learned to behave, living in the mafia.
    Even thou you don’t know about his real family, Sun-woo is allegorised as an orphan from the western point of view, he has no-one who is really close to him.
    I have been to Korea and I will move there next week and it is interesting, that a typical father in Korea is very different to what we are used to in western countrys.
    From the Korean point of view the perfect father would be “like an eagle circling high up in the sky, having an eye on everything and protecting the family”, he is the distanced protector, he has not a very deep relationship with his children, being contrary to the mother who is caring a lot, having a very emotional connection, especially to her son.
    So I would say Sun-woo is a son without a mother, but he has a father, well it is not his real father and you might not agree with that, but to me, Kang a father-figure to Sun-woo.
    Sun-woo respects him, more then his colleagues, he is very loyal until the point where he starts to rebel. But why is he rebelling? What is he taking revenge for? Hee-soo didn’t die, she is alive, if she would have died, it would be more reasonable.
    Is Sun-woo just taking revenge, because Kang told his men to kill him and worked together with his enemy Baek?
    I highly doubt, that this is, what the makers of the film had in mind, it would be much too trivial and unreasonable, the relationship between Baek and Sun-woo is not THAT hostile, to say it shortly, Sun-woo is annoyed by him, he takes out his bad mood on him, the depression the situation with Hee-soo and Kang is giving him, he does not really care about Baek. By the way, this is another point which I find is showing Sun-woo’s hidden immature and childish side, he is a little boy in a snit.
    If you look at Sun-woo’s face when he is sitting in the mud, surrounded by Kang and his men, it is one of the very few scenes where you see emotion in his face. He is desperate, he dissapointed Kang but he couldn’t explain why, he really couldn’t because he doesn’t know how to explain it, he is not too proud, you can read it in his face, it’s sad and desperate. Later, at the final showdown, he asks Kang why he did punish him that hard. He is naive, he has embarrassed his boss, he has not fulfilled his charge and he still got several chances to explain himself and safe his life, looking at other asian mafia-films you can tell this very generous of Kang. But he doesn’t know why Kang was doing this to him, he screams at him, that he served for him like a dog, for 7 (?) years. Then he kills him, but not as cold as he killed all the other men, the whole scene carries so much emotion, Kang is more then just his boss.
    Also: At the end it was clear to me, that he must have been in love with Hee-soo. It is his first love, he doesn’t understand those feelings at all and he knows that he can never have her, it is obvious, this is one reason why he is choosing the path of revenge, instead of escaping with her. She doesn’t want him after all that happened, and he knows that, still secretly hoping for a wonder, he buys her the red lamp and when he is dying he wants to call her.
    He knows that he can not have her, hoping for a wonder, when it is already sure that he will die, just as waking up from the most beautiful dream, crying because it can’t go on.
    Oh I could write so much more, seriously, you can find a deeper meaning in this film, it’s not just the usual asian action-drama, there is more in it. I’ve seen a lot of films aswell, I know there are allways different ways to interpret a film, but saying, that there is no deeper-meaning in a film is what I’d call foolhardy, unless it is Highschool Musical 2 … and even there ;-)

  • Robin_edlund

    To keep it short, if u dont think there is “more to it”, you just have to watch it another time…youve completely missed the point(s) . Congrats…And shame on you for trying to insult such a nice movie!