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