Movie of the Day – A Bittersweet Life
July 21, 2012 Leave a comment
There is just something about Korean films that seem so much more visceral than the American counterparts. I have written about the Park Chan-Wook revenge trilogy “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance“, “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” which took the most physical of emotions, revenge, and showcased it in the most explicit way possible. We have revenge films in America, mainly with one individual going after another because of a personal crime, but Park’s diving into the subject examined the effects that revenge has on those that act out that aggression. “I Saw The Devil” is another film in which I talked about the use of violence in relation to revenge. A lot of Korean Cinema, or the cinema there that makes it to the US, seem to bask in the ultra-violent emotional outbursts that revenge or vengeance has on humans. There is a small subtext within those movies, which is the path to redemption and closure. It’s masked under all violence and rage, but at it’s heart, these movies show characters trying to find that bit of closure to their in the midst of violent settings.
“A Bittersweet Life” embodies a lot of cultural aspects with regards to vengeance, redemption and morality. Disguised under the veil as a gangster picture, the film is a mean for one man’s struggle to cope with betrayal, finding peace, and dispensing some therapeutic justice. Steeped in philosophical quandaries and beautiful imagery, this is a gangster film that doesn’t focus on the organization or the business they are in, rather its a stylish revenge film that posits about the beauty in life and doing what is right, even if it’s wrong.
Sun-woo (Lee Byeong-heon of Joint Security Area) is a devastatingly effective, but businesslike enforcer for Mr. Kang (Kim Young-cheol), a mob boss who owns La Dolce Vita, the Seoul nightclub where Sun-woo employs the sloppier, less reliable Mun-suk (Kim Rwe-ha of Memories of Murder) to keep things running smoothly. Kang is involved in a developing feud with another boss, President Baek (Hwang Jeong-min), when he goes on a business trip, leaving Sun-woo in charge, and discreetly asking him for a special favor. There’s a “special” young woman he’s been seeing, Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah of Volcano High). He suspects she’s been seeing another man, and he asks Sun-woo to look after her while he’s gone, and find out if she’s cheating on him. If Sun-woo catches them together, Kang tells him, he should either phone Kang and tell him, or “finish them off yourself.” But Sun-woo finds himself fascinated with Hee-soo, a cellist, and his inability to follow Kang’s orders soon brings a world of trouble down on his head. Of course, Sun-woo is fully capable of making some trouble of his own. ~ Josh Ralske, Rovi
“A Bittersweet Life” is a cut above the typical gangster films that are all flash and no substance. Instead of just moving along from shootouts to drugs deals and back to shootouts, A Bittersweet Life manages to turn the focus on the main characters and his conflict between loyalty to the boss and the tasks that he must carry out. Byung-hun Lee, who you might recognize now in more mainstream films like G.I. Joe, is unbelievable in this role. I have seen just about every one of his films as the man is an incredible talent of emotional acting with a strong physical presence that makes his roles dynamic.
The opening of the film really sets up his character for the audience. A stoic, reserved gentlemen with respect and tact, moving through the hotel building with a precise purpose. His employees and helpers bow and respect him as he walks by, only to show his true purpose when he confronts a group of loud gangsters that overstay their welcome. In this opening 6 minute scene, he quickly lashes our and disposes of the gang members with an unbelievable ferocity that is both calm and direct. This is the sort of character that is layered and complex. The film highlights the little subtle changes in his mood as a man who is trusted and loyal, but also shows a hint of sadness and conflict.
Where the revenge aspect comes into play is when Sun-woo goes against the wishes of Kang and President Baek, who turn on him after he goes against their wishes to take care of a problem. The problem is a young girl that Kang is seeing, who is seeing someone else. Sun-woo’s conflict arises from the innocence and circumstances of young love, finding that the girl is destined for a life other than with Kang. It’s a perfect reflection on his life, seeing that he has devoted everything to the gang and not finding something more for him. Betrayed and angered, Sun-woo ensures that no harm will come to the girl and exacts an visceral revenge on those who betrayed him and threaten the livelihood of himself and the girl.
The revenge and violence is truly bittersweet (sorry, bad pun) with Sun-woo lashing out in an animalistic way. His depiction in the film paints him as an angelic figure, someone who is tempered, but has an underlying power. The betrayal and threats change him into an angel of carnage, dispatching gang members in a violent way that borders on grotesque with the casual nature he has when pulling a trigger. But the killings and violence is almost cleansing to him, bringing him closer to some peace he wanted for so long. The final moments of the film are hyper-violent but beautiful in the way it closes out the violence with philosophical statements and the understanding of Sun-woo’s actions.
A Bittersweet Life is a really the most unconventional gangster movie out there. Leave it Jee-woon Kim (who directed I Saw The Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters) manages to find a way to add some depth to a very stylish movie. The soundtrack is operatic and balanced between frantic moments of action with long stretches of introspective scenes. The film is a fairly long at 2 hours, but it moves at such a brisk pace that you won’t mind that the action part of this film starts about midway through the film. It finds a harmonious balance between absolutely visceral imagery of violence, with a serene beauty of calm, stoic moments of morality. I can’t recommend this movie enough to people who are looking for a nice, balanced film that offers up a lot of thematic elements, but also showcasing fantastic acting, particularly from Byung-hun Lee who is just as charismatic in this film as he is in all of his films.
This is a hard movie to track down, even on Netflix and Amazon. I had to buy the Tartan Asian UK release to get my fix, but thankfully someone on Youtube uploaded the entire film. So if you are interested in seeing this, here is the video below.