A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Writers: Kim Ji-woon
Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Hwang Jeong-min and Kim Yeong-cheol

The Plot: Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) works as an enforcer for his employer, president Kang, where he looks after his safety and investments. When Kang picks Sun-woo to look after his new, and young, girlfriend, it isn’t just for her safety. He wants him to keep an eye open and see if she’s sneaking off with another man. Sun-woo is told that if she is, he is to finish them both off. Soon after Sun-woo begins his mission, he discovers that the girl is indeed cheating on her powerful lover. Sun-woo then decides to confront the two but is unable to bring himself to actually commit the murder, so instead he asks that the two never see one another. However, Kang finds out eventually and seeks to kill Sun-woo. After capturing and torturing our leading man, Sun-woo eventually escapes the claws of his enemies and sets out on a path of vengeance!

The Review
Kim Ji-woon is one of those filmmakers who has quickly jumped up to the top of every film-geek’s list of brilliant working directors, in a brief amount of time. A Bittersweet Life was certainly one of those films that helped put him on the map in the eyes of many people, but with titles such as The Good, The Bad and the Weird as well as A Tale of Two Sisters, this is a filmmaker who has solidified himself with genre film fans the world over. From the early part of this past decade, one of the biggest titles that seemed to jump out for many was A Bittersweet Life. It is ultimately a revenge tale told in a decidedly Kim Ji-woon fashion, as he takes genre staples and then fashions them into something that no longer resembles the original prototype. While A Bittersweet Life does have its issues, it tends to work far more than the interspersed moments where things do not click. A violent, somber and focused piece of work, Kim Ji-woon shows off his knack for action early on his career. As the movie plays out for us, the final half hour greatly resembles the ridiculous levels of action that John Woo often brought to the table within his prime years. Although the excitement and fun action pieces here would later be expounded upon, and perfected, with The Good, The Bad and The Weird, A Bittersweet Life still works incredibly well.

Although I will no doubt talk a lot about the action within this film, and no doubt there have been countless other reviews that have done the same thing, for the most part this is a very deliberately paced film that catches Kim Ji-woon at a transitional phase in his career. Although I have never been a tremendous fan of the film, one can definitely see the similarities between this film’s pacing and that of A Tale of Two Sisters. The restrained genre conventions and overall artiness throughout both films definitely seems reminiscent of one another. The difference here however is that A Tale of Two Sisters remained married to its conventions, while A Bittersweet Life doesn’t feel as tied down. It retains a flowing quality to it that takes us into several genre territories (action, revenge, arthouse, comedy) but refrains from committing. This could be one of the reasons it still remains such an interesting project for so many. It could also be due to the generally “cool” nature of the project, which displays Kim Ji-woon’s love of stylistic flourishes and attitude. The film often falls into these sequences that serve little purpose other than convincing us that Lee Byung-hun is both the coolest and baddest man on the planet, and to be honest these scenes make a pretty good argument for his case.

Korean superstar and well beloved man of action Lee Byung-hun is certainly the centerpiece for Kim Ji-woon’s film, and rightfully so. I sometimes like to re-imagine casting for big films and see if I can picture a film without its lead star. Like, could I imagine Platoon without Charlie Sheen? I actually could, and I could just as well see it being equally as successful. The reason, I imagine, is that such a role revolves entirely around the script and how the character was written down on the page. Some performances however rely on an actor with a notable charisma and chemistry with his fellow actors. Often you’ll find such roles in genre-cinema, which is why actors such as Chow Yun-Fat and Bruce Campbell have developed such rabid fan-bases. Lee Byung-hun’s turn here as the king of cool, Sun-moo, is also such a role. Although the script is well written and the performances by the rest of the cast are universally great, Lee Byung-hun’s quiet cool is what truly carries the movie. His character is introspective and quiet when necessary, but there is a ferocity that comes out with only a moment’s notice. He can go from brooding to a martial arts demon within only a moment, and although he has the face of a pretty boy he surely demonstrates himself as a capable badass when it comes to the fight choreography.

The choreography in both the gunfights towards the end of the film, as well as the fight sequences that are interspersed throughout the movie, are epic in their intensity. There are two notable sequences in particular that demonstrate both the complexity of the choreography, as well as the hero-worship based around Lee Byung-hun’s character. The first is at the very beginning of the movie where we watch Byung-hun escort a few gentlemen out of his employer’s hotel, with extreme force. The sequence is here solely to establish the imposing mystique of Byung-hun’s character, and although I may be simple minded, I admit that it works exceptionally well! The second sequence shows Lee Byung-hun taking his frustrations out, after having severe issues with his bosses wife, on several young street-racing punks who try to run him off the road with their sports car. The choreography isn’t your typical Tae Kwon Do work as one might expect either. The fight sequences seem to feature a variety of martial arts techniques, but the mix seems to best resemble a controlled style of brawling. As far as the choreography for the gun battles go, it is a slightly more realistic approach than John Woo, but still still remains smothered in style. There are some fantastic slow motion shots of dramatized violence as you might expect, but when Lee Byung-hun’s character sports a submachine gun with a banana clip, the damage it inflicts is tremendous and there is no amount of “style” that can soften this form of brutality.

The Conclusion
I tend to wonder about the subtext of A Bittersweet Life, and whether or not it is all that important to actually understanding the film. My first instinct is to say that this is a generic action yarn with the generic revenge motif thrown in at the behest of inspiring more violence, but at the same time that seems to overlook how quiet and melodic the film is throughout the majority of its plot. A Bittersweet Life definitely shows a far different view on revenge than what Kim Ji-woon’s later I Saw the Devil would look to inspire, but I still genuinely enjoy the movie despite it being a case of style over substance. I tend to go back and forth on the rating, between a three and a four, but I am going to go with the higher rating for this one as I think many viewers will find the movie easy to get behind. Check it out, as there is no question to how entertaining the movie genuinely is.