Publicity Stills of "A Bittersweet Life"
(Courtesy from Shaw)

Genre: Action
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Starring: Lee Byung-Hun, Kim Young-Chil, Shin Mina, Hwang Jung-Min,
RunTime: 2 hrs
Released By: Shaw & Innoform
Rating: M-18 (Violence)

Opening Day: 15 September 2005


He just wanted to keep faith without harming the girl.

But the whole world called him enemy from that moment.

A sky lounge bar & restaurant at a hotel, floating like an island in one side of the sky above Seoul. That place is a small castle of Sun-Woo, a keen and sharp perfectionist. After spending 7 years serving his boss, President Kang and obtaining his absolute trust, Sun-Woo became the person who managed the sky lounge. With his silent faithfulness not to ask why and a perfect of handling business, he won his boss’ trust.

A cold-hearted boss, President Kang punished rule-breakers regardless of any mistakes they made. He had a secret that he cannot tell anybody: that is his young lover, Hee-Soo. President Kang orders Sun-Woo to watch her out of the doubt that she might have another lover, and if it turns out true, to kill her.

On the third day when Sun-Woo started following Hee-Soo, he made a surprise attack on the place where Hee-Soo was with her boyfriend. However, at the last moment, he let them go after much hesitation.

Sun-Woo believed that everything can return to the normal state. However, due to this decision that he made, Sun-Woo starts an irreparable war against the whole gang who were his own brothers until the day he spare Hee-Soo’s life.

Movie Review:

Film noir has been a dying art.

For those who are not familiar with this genre, it is defined as “a stylistic approach to genre films forged in depression era detective and gangster movies and hard-boiled detective stories which were a staple of pulp fiction.” (Dictionary.com) In French, film noir is known as “black film” for its dark humour, depressive ambience and dark lighting. And it’s an open secret that the protagonist in the film is often an anti-hero, a tortured being with internal conflicting interests who usually doesn’t walk away smiling at the end of the film.

Hollywood is known for producing such films in the early years, with actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck and Lauren Bacall leading the pack in this genre, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) respectively. However, this genre has not been forthcoming from Hollywood in recent years. And just as movie lovers thought that all is lost, Korea has taken over the helm in producing films of such genre.

Even more surprising is the fact that Korean director Kim Jee-Woon will take a shot, considering that his previous works have been horror, such as the segment “Memories” in Three (2002) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). However, he pulls it off very well, especially the fact that he manages to transform a simple love story in the midst of betrayal into a masterpiece.

Lead actor Lee Byung-Hun has always been known for his masculine physique and chiselled features (Think Joint Security Area (2000) and Korean drama All In (2003)). However, it’s his breakthrough performance in Everybody has Secrets (2004) in which he seduced all three sisters that people start to take notice of his alter ego: his sexual appeal as a metrosexual.

In this film, Byung-Hun takes on the role of a manager, Sun-Woo, of a swanky hotel. While all is calm on the surface, Sun Woo is in reality more than a manager. He is a member of the Korean mafia, a seasoned and hardened fighter who has served his boss President Kang for 7 years. Doubling as a bouncer for the hotel, he also deals with “unfinished” business, such as bashing up hooligans who refuse to leave the hotel premises after operating hours. One day, he’s assigned by his boss to keep an eye on his young lover Hee-Soo (Shin Mina) and was ordered to kill her should Hee-Soo’s love for him waver. However, when Sun-woo found out about Hee-Soo’s infidelity, his humanity got the better of him and he failed to pull the trigger. And with this betrayal of trust, the mafia turned on Sun-Woo.

This film rates high on action and will definitely go down well with hardcore fans of stylistic violence portrayed on celluloid. Especially so is the emphasis on the calm before the storm, whereby violence and backlash erupts in a fragment of a second without any form of warning. A pivotal scene in this film depicts a fuming Sun-woo kicking the asses of two punks who taunts him on the road (Road bullies beware!). The sequences for this scene is perfectly-executed, with the underlying rage of Sun-Woo clearly exhibited.

A Bittersweet Life will most probably be compared with Old Boy, another acclaimed Korean film noir helmed by Park Chan-Wook. However, these two films excel on their own merits and should not be contrasted. While Old Boy’s thematic use of incest, betrayal and vengeance strengthens the plot, A Bittersweet Life transcends conventional, formulaic narrative structures through the use of unique cinematography.
Credits should be given to director Kim Jee-Woon for his artistic directions in this film. Through the use of philosophical analogies and metaphors, he has successful imbued his artistic vision into the film. Especially noteworthy is the message in the opening credits, that it’s always the human heart and mind that move, never an external object. This message encompasses what this film is all about, that things are not always what they seem on the surface. A storm may be brewing and what is seen as serene and tranquil is actually the calm before the storm.

It will be an injustice to end this review without giving credit to the scene at the start of the film, where Sun-Woo makes his way to the basement upon receiving a phone call. The trip from a luxurious lounge to the mundane kitchen to the dirty basement serves as an apt metaphor to depict his journey through life.

It’s about one man’s downward spiral towards decadence and a life of unfulfilled dreams.

Movie Rating:

(“Lee Byung-Hun shines in this film noir that reeks of turbulence beneath a state of normality. One of Korea’s finest films this Year! ”)

Review by Patrick Tay


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