Story: Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is the manager of a bar and serves under crime boss Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol).
For seven years already, he loyally stands at his bosses side, so that he is even entrusted with the task to keep an
eye on Kang's girlfriend Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), as Kang believes that she may be cheating on him. If this should prove
to be true Sun-woo is supposed to eliminate Hee-soo and her new boyfriend. Sun-woo finds out that Hee-soo is in fact
unfaithful to boss Kang. However, Sun-woo gives Hee-soo one last chance and spares her life, if she and her boyfriend
never meet again and if she would completely erase this affair from her memory.
At the same time, Sun-woo also clashes with Mu-sung (Lee Gi-yeong), the son of befriended gangster boss Baek. The otherwise cool-minded Sun-woo suddenly starts to show more and more emotions and is drawn into a whirlpool of violence when boss Kang finds out that his girlfriend cheated on him and that Sun-woo hid it from him. Sun-woo is captured and tortured, but somehow manages to escape. Now, he plans on taking revenge on Kang, while at the same time he asks himself how things could have ended up like this and why his boss is reacting in such an extreme way. The answer to that question is something he only gets after a long walk through a sea of blood...
Review: "A Bittersweet Life" is gritty, uncompromising and bloody. A movie that will make any action fan
jump for joy and which is so consistent concerning its story and the dying of some of the characters that you
might think that you are back in the good old "Hong Kong film noir" days. What's really special about the movie is that behind the
rather simple story around a killer, who faithfully served his boss for many years and suddenly is dropped because
of a small mistake he made - this again just is Hong Kong stuff through and through - there is even more substance
than we could have hoped for. The story is wrapped up in great pictures, which at times are incredibly stylish, without
looking artificial, and so much gritty action and blood, that you might question if this movie is really from Korea.
Lee Byung-hun portrays the movie's anti-hero. He's almost the embodiment of coolness, which however also means that
he lacks any real emotions. His character's distance makes it really difficult for us to relate to him, but
actually that's not what the film aims for. Only slowly there are more and more emotions showing through and
Sun-woo has to ask himself why they are coming up so suddenly. Kang seems to know the reason for that before Sun-woo
does, which is also why he punishes his former subordinate so extremely. Still, the killer can't understand
how things could have come to pass the way they have. There is no doubt that the director wants to illuminate the
pointlessness of violence, that creates a whirlpool of blood in which anyone near it is about to drown. Apart from
that director Kim Ji-woon ("A Tale of Two Sisters", "The Quiet Family") also stresses the importance of honor and
losing one's face in this society. In the end, it might all just head for vengeance, but at its core, as odd as this
might sound, the film focuses on how Sun-woo becomes more and more human, and how one single mistake can turn your
whole life upside down.
Until towards the end we get only little to see of the human side of the main protagonist. He scores some sympathy points by sparing Hee-soos life, and we also suffer alongside him when he gets tortured really badly and even gets buried alive, but at his core he is still the somewhat cold-blooded killer. Main actor Lee Byung-hun ("JSA", "Bungee Jumping of their Own") maybe hasn't a multi-layered character to portray, but he absolutely succeeds in giving his character the charisma and coolness, that is indispensable for a movie like this to work out. Furthermore, it's also really refreshing to see that despite his fighting expertise and toughness the main character is also very vulnerable. We don't get any superman, but someone made from flesh and blood. And concerning the latter one, he loses quite much of it during the movie. Lee also surprises with impressive agility and speed in some of the fighting scenes. Which is no wonder as he trained some Taekwondo in his youth. As an action- and anti-hero Lee cuts quite a figure and he also gives it his all in some rather arduous scenes, so that we really don't want to change roles with him when he is buried in mud in a specially harsh scene.
Kim Ji-woon's cinematography just has great style and stands out with its polished pictures and gritty shots,
including the obligative scenes in the rain. Especially the bar and some other settings display that one didn't
leave anything to chance concerning the color of certain scenes or the props. What's also sticking out is that
"A Bittersweet Life" gradually becomes more and more dark and somber. The climax of this gloomy atmosphere is reached when
Sun-woo crawls out of his grave and has to fight for dear life against a whole bunch of thugs. The violence
depicted is right-in-your-face style, so that this sequence will definitely make the adrenaline rush through your
veins and tie you to your chair. Faint-hearted viewers should avoid this movie as there is really much blood
to be seen and violence in general is an important motif in Kim's work. But that's just one of the film's
strong points. The uncompromising and dark style is a welcome change to all those fluffy Korea-rom-coms, that you
get to see nowadays.
Only later on there are finally guns finding their way on screen, and then the film really doesn't need to hide from any John Woo movie, at least when it comes to the last showdown. The last shoot-out is perfectly choreographed and taking place at the bar "La Dolce Vita". In this classy ambience the bullet ballet looks like blood being soaked up by snow. There is some apparant poetry in this last killing spree. However, also on other occasions Kim Ji-woon comes up with quite some inventive ideas concerning camera movements, angles etc., in order to bestow a special flair on his film. This cool and at times wonderfully gritty atmosphere is complemented by well done black humor, that is especially effective in the scenes with the russian weapon dealers. Also top-notch is the score, which feautures some classic pieces, a little bit of flamenco-like stuff and at other times tension-building music, that is of great variety and is always perfectly underlining the events on screen.
The first time I saw this movie, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed, because it was praised as the new "Oldboy" by many critics. Well, that's certainly not true, even if the film might actually look like a mix of Park Chan-wook's work and a HK-action movie. It can't be denied that some scenes are borrowed from the dark and gloomy Hong Kong cinema of the 80s/90s, but fortunately Kim also places enough of his own style into the movie so that this mixture works out just perfectly. In the end, "A Bittersweet Life", especially after the second viewing, didn't fail to impress me. The movie's style has this special something that any film critic is begging for. Moreover, it's unyielding in its path of destruction and brutal to the core. That makes it easy to forgive some of the flaws, which is for example the fact that we can't relate to Sun-woo at the beginning, and that some of the supporting characters, for instance Shin Min-a's character, fall by the wayside. Furthermore, even though it is amusing and captivating, the scene with the weapon dealers feels a bit too forcedly inserted into the film. Nonetheless, as already said this hardly flaws the very good overall picture of this film noir.
Who would have thought that of all people the director of rather quiet movies like "A Tale of Two Sisters", Kim Ji-woon, would succeed in creating the best gritty action film out of Korea to date. The pacing is just right, even if it still might be somewhat more tranquil than in your average action movie, the action itself is depicted in a grand manner, and under all those violence "A Bittersweet Life" also offers a nice emotional resolving end, that manages to send shivers down your spine, because of its harshness and bitterness. "A Bittersweet Life" compares favorably with the best Hong Kong movies of the past, and also comes along with some great subtle drama. This movie is especially recommendable to all movie-lovers of uncompromising and gritty film noir pictures!