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A Bittersweet Life

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Posted 6th May 2009 at 01:23 PM by Philleh

Oh boy, oh boy! Nothing gets the old Johnson up faster than a great Korean flick. Sad, I know! But what ya’ gonna do? I’m sure I’m not the only poor bastard with this affliction: It’s the power of Cinema I tells ya’!

There is no other country on the planet that has such an amazing output of QUALITY movies that South Korea has – fact!

When Ji-woon Kim made the horror community collectively jizz itself with his 2003 frightener A Tale of Two Sisters, few could argue that the man had no talent and with the mega success of Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy in 2004 it wasn’t long before revenge sagas were the flavour of the month. When Kim went public with his intent on making his own ‘revenge’ tale, the film world once again jazzed itself, and with good reason! A Bittersweet Life turned out to be more film-noir than Oldboy: Redux.

Mega-star Lee Byung-heon (Chan-wook Park’s JSA: Joint Security Area) plays Sun-woo, a bad-ass henchman for top Korean mobster Mr. Kang (Kim Young-cheol). He’s also the manager of a swank bar called La Dolce Vita (get it?) and likes to take care of rival mobsters with a swift kick or three to the face, once he’s finished a fine dessert of course, if they foolishly decide to go to his bar. When Mr. Kang gives him an assignment to spy on his lover Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah), who he suspects of cheating, things turn messy when Sun-woo himself has a moment of weakness and covers up the betrayal and lets the pair live. Mr. Kang isn’t best pleased, as Sun-woo will inevitably find out…

When Kang’s goons come and kidnap him, the brutality they display clearly shocks the once loyal grunt. Burying him alive, after making him dig the damn hole, he manages to climb free… only for the goons to still be there, timing his escape! Then the real punishment comes. Slamming a shovel into poor Sun-woo’s hand and giving him a royal beat down, they await the big man’s word to end his life. When that word is received Sun-woo makes a break for it, kicking some ass in the process with some burning sticks and getting away in one of the goons cars, after smashing through a warehouse wall.

Jacked up, angry and in a lot of ****ing pain, Sun-woo sets in motion his revenge. This will mean gunning his way through Kang’s ranks until he has reached the top. Along the way he will meet some seriously ****ed up arms dealers, a brother of one of the crazy arms dealers and come face to face with Hee-soo to explain why he has chosen this fate. La Dolce Vita will be the final resting place for many and will be the location for the overly ironic finale: brace yourself.

Where do I start? A Bittersweet Life is a rare film indeed, where all aspects of the film work hand in hand to form one near perfect entity, no lone aspect truly outshines another. The acting is all of an unbelievable high level, the production design (from the lady that did Memories of Murder AND Oldboy) is spectacular, the music is gorgeous and the direction is executed flawlessly. If this movie were a woman, it’d be Monica Bulluci. It looks and sounds THAT fantastic.

Kim shows his love for many American mavericks like Coppola and Scorsese through his set-pieces, The Godfather and Taxi Driver especially. Speaking of the set-pieces, action man Doo-hong Jung (The City of Violence) has done a spectacular job here, with the mass brawls proving especially inventive and have been imitated in copious amounts of Korean gangster flicks that have followed in A Bittersweet Life’s wake, such as A Dirty Carnival and Running Wild.


This is clearly Lee Byung-heon’s movie, he shows why he’s such a sought after actor and delivers a performance that is as insecure and vulnerable as it is badass! He’s a cool cat indeed, and it’s not hard to side-up with him once he’s betrayed by doing what is practically his ONLY noble act: letting the lovers be, as they truly are in love, unlike the lustful Kang who only wants Hee-soo as a pet to show off. Aside from Lee Byung-heon, the star of the movie was Kim Roe-ha (Memories of Murder) who plays the jealous rival Mun-suk. Lovingly taking out his anger on Mr. Kang’s ex-numero uno, his performance as the pitiful fool who gets what coming to him (in a very Taxi Driver-esque set-piece), will have you cheering your ass off.

So, what are the downsides? Well, truth be told, there are a few plot holes and you will have to suspend belief on a few occasions, such as Sun-woo’s incredible pain threshold, once his hand is smashed to bits it isn’t long before he’s totting a gun and blasting fools. Not to mention driving a car! I was able to over look that as with all good noir stories, the anti-hero is boarder-line super human.

This film was blasted as gratuitous violence upon it initial release, but I can’t see it myself. The violence is bloody and brutal, but it needs to be! This isn’t your average GOOD guy versus BAD guys’ routine, this is BADEST guy versus BAD guys’ and you need that level of brutality to stop you from fully backing this guys actions - as it’s wrong. He shouldn’t go blasting away anyone and everyone who stands in his way; he could have simply turned himself into the fuzz and crumbled Kang’s empire that way? Granted it wouldn’t be a testosterone filled joy-ride, and that’s why the violence brings you back down to earth and makes you realises that a world full of evil men will be bloody and these aren’t good people, once they may have been, but now they’re nothing more than machines, emotionally redundant machines.

The DVD I’ve reviewed is the Korean Region 3 release, it’s a beautiful looking package and to my knowledge is the only ‘Director’s Cut’ available, Tartan had slated it for release shortly before folding, but who knows it might surface one day on R2. There are plenty of commentaries and features to keep Korean speaking member entertained for hours, too bad I’m not one of them! The Region 2 Tartan release, containing the theatrical cut only, is a good purchase but extras are a little thin on the ground, with brief interviews and some Cannes footage on top of some trailers. But if you are going to pick this up, wait for the director’s cut or import the Region 3 DVD. Or, for you consumer whore’s out there (i.e. me), buy them both!

Those who have seen A Tale of Two Sisters and respected the filmmakers approach to horror should do themselves justice and pick this up as soon as possible. This is Ji-woon Kim’s best film to date.

Directed by:
Ji-woon Kim

Cast:
Lee Byung-heon
Kim Young-cheol
Shin Min-ah
Kim Roe-ha

Recommendations: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance & Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
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Comments

  1. Old Comment

    hey

    nice review. A Bittersweet Life is one of the best gangster films I've ever seen.

    I had the pleasure of watching it in the theater at the Philly Film festival a couple years ago. One of the best movie viewing experiences of my life.
    Comment with Quote permalink
    Posted 29th June 2009 at 01:10 AM by cksdayoff
  2. Old Comment
    Philleh's Avatar
    Thanks dude! I'm jealous as hell that you saw it on the big screen! I had the pleasure of seeing A Tale of Two Sisters on the big screen though, that was a great experience! As was The Good, The Bad, The Weird!
    Comment with Quote permalink
    Posted 7th July 2009 at 10:13 AM by Philleh Philleh is offline
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