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A review of A Bittersweet Life, curtesy of Sine Cera.
“Life is pain. Didn’t you know that?” President Baek.
A Bittersweet Life is the type of film that will leave you wanting for more, and not in a bad way. This style noir film is your common gangster story, with a love triangle, and a thirst for vengeance; but at the same time, there is nothing common about it.
The film is directed and written by Jee-Woo Kim, who brings out the tough, violent, gangster world with a touch of sentimentalism. It has beautiful cinematography, which has been compared to Scorsese, John Woo and Tarantino’s films. Rich of artistic shots, and meaningful details: like at the beginning, when Sun-woo makes a pause from eating his chocolate fudge –obviously bothered- when he realizes he has to step in and do somebody else’s dirty job, but decides to continue eating a few more bites before confronting the problem. Of course, its safe to assume that the effect of apathy it causes on you has a lot to do with the awesome acting of Lee Byung-hun, who brings more than just a three dimensional character to the screen.
For those who wish to stay impartial when watching the movie… your reading ends here!
Jee-woon Kim opens up with an epigraph in Sun-woo’s voice; “One fine spring day, a disciple looked at some branches blowing in the wind. He asked his master: ‘Master, are the branches moving or is it the wind?’ Not even glancing to where his pupil was pointing, the master smiled and said: ‘That which moves is neither the branches nor the wind, it’s your heart and mind.” This reminded me of Samurai films, it was a nice touch I had never seen in any other Korean movie.
The story starts with Sun-woo, the manager of a hotel, who also happens to be an enforcer for Mr. Kang, a gang boss. Although evidently bothered by a small commotion down in the club, he takes care of the job, and we learn of his confident and unyielding character. He is so disciplined and tenacious in his actions, that it makes him seemed arrogant and cruel. Not a surprise why they boss then charges him with a personal mission; he is to spy on the boss’s mistress while he is out of town for three days. The boss trusts Sun-Woo will do the right thing.
To complicate things, the somewhat clownish under man who wants to be the boss’s right hand, but knows he lacks the attitude, resolves to challenge Sun-woo by making one mistake after another in the midst of an important deal they have going with another gang’s leader.
Our anti-hero has his plate full; the apparent sweet girlfriend; and the conniving under man. From the beginning, he is shown to act with certainty and practicality. However, we all know that a story does not go anywhere if our main character remains the same from beginning to end. In his pledge to find out what he really meant as the honest-trusting-right hand man, nothing else remains but to stay loyal to his own convictions.
The director then gives you an insight into Sun-woo’s thoughts with yet another epigraph: “One late autumn night, the disciple woke up crying. So the master asked the disciple: ‘Did you have a nightmare?’ ‘No.’ ‘Did you have a sad dream?’ ‘No’. Said the disciple: ‘I had a sweet dream.’ ‘Then why are you crying so sadly?’ The disciple answered quietly while wiping his tears: ‘Because the dream I had can’t come true’.” The movie ends with Sun-woo boxing playfully with his reflection on the window.
Lee Byung-hun’s Sun-woo takes me back to the French film Le Samurai with Alian Delon. He is the cold, detached, you-don’t-want-to-mess-with-me anti-hero, who later surprises us with actions that go beyond our expectations of him. Lee Byung-hun is so pragmatic in his portrayal of Sun-woo, it’s hard to think is just a character in a story.
The OST of this film is a jewel. It has music from Yang Pa, Hwang Jung-min, and others including the famous Japanese pianist Yuhki Kuramoto. It can be easily recognize apart from the film.
Critics acknowledged the movie as one of the best gangster movies, and it was also said to be the best Korean movie of 2005. While some gave the movie high praise, others didn’t care much for the film’s ending scene. Many interpreted it as a way of contrasting the characters positive beginning with the negative ending. I think the character was negative from the beginning: a lonely, unsociable hit man, who had never experienced love before. The end scene, for me, was more of a reinforcement of character personality. Sun-woo, although a ruthless enforcer, still held naïve and honest feelings in his very core.
I have not seen the theatrical version of this movie; that said, I couldn’t tell which scenes were the director’s cut. However, even then, I can still say the end was a bit overshadowed by too many and long flashbacks that take us into Sun-Woo’s mind and heart. Its like the director is saying; “here let me put it more simply so that you understand what I already showed you.” Overall, it is one great-must-watch film.