A Bittersweet Life: Director's Cut Review
After the mind shag that was A Tale of Two Sisters one couldn’t begin to imagine what Kim Ji-wun’s next film would be. Was it even worth him even trying to dabble in another horror? Nope, which is why he finally makes something of a departure with his latest. The director has already well established himself as a solid film maker who can tackle multiple genres. The aforementioned A Tale of Two Sisters and his short, Memories both showcase his extreme talent for horror film making; while his debut The Quiet Family and subsequent feature, The Foul King demonstrates his knack of comedic skill and ingenuity. So, not being one to stick to convention, Kim Ji-wun heads into violent, gangster action territory. A Bittersweet Life is also one big, lavishly violent, simple film - and it’s great.
The story goes a little something like this.
For seven years, Sun Woo (Lee Byung-hun) has acted as an enforcer for one of Korea’s largest crime syndicates led by President Kang (Kim Young-chul), while providing himself with a good cover at the restaurant “La Dolce Vita”. One day Mr. Kang approaches Sun Woo and asks him for a favour: He is going to be taking a business trip for a few days and needs someone to keep their eye on his young girlfriend, Hee Soo (Shin Min-ah). Sun Woo is the only man he can trust so he places a considerable burden upon him. Kang tells Sun Woo that if he finds that Hee Soo is cheating then he must take her life. Kang leaves town and Sun Woo heads off to Hee Soo’s house. After a couple of days he catches her in the midst of an affair, which prompts him to offer her and her lover an ultimatum, rather than kill them in cold blood. This is brought on by a growing attraction for the girl, but his decision will ultimately cost him dearly.
Kim Ji-wun would seem to understand that convoluted plot threads don’t always make grade A material. Rather than bettering himself in that respect he does a complete U-Turn and creates a simple linear structure, while preserving endless details. His three acts are executed stylistically and passionately as he sets up the fracturing of one man’s psyche during a severe bout of communication breakdown. I always felt that The Foul King was the director’s most easily marketable film. Its humour and themes translate well universally and yet it was never capitalised on. Now, with A Bittersweet Life Kim Ji-wun has created something which just might attain as much world recognition as A Tale of Two Sisters and launch itself into classic status alongside some of America, Hong Kong and Japan’s finest revenge flicks.
A Bittersweet Life is still unmistakable Kim Ji-wun material: It has poignancy, dark humour, stylised violence and uniquely beautiful aesthetics which highlight and compliment its central figures and themes. Though its initial premise isn’t wholly original, having owed itself a lot to 70’s, savage cinema and classic 80's Hong Kong its execution is marvellous. Granted it takes a good hour to actually get into gear, after painstakingly setting up its lead character and motivations, but once it hits that half way point it becomes a gloriously violent assault. In many ways its first half is not unlike the director’s previous film; this is where we familiarise ourselves with its environment, which is equally as efficient in creating a bleak atmosphere. And then the entire thing is stripped of its beauty as Sun Woo goes on a bloody rampage. If anything Kim Ji-wun certainly takes new steps in describing violent encounters; A Bittersweet Life - while not perhaps as grotesque as the likes of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy - is more relentless and quicker paced. And much of this is no doubt glorified. Each act of punishment is carried out realistically, yet is staged as if it were a Manga translated to the screen. Several encounters become too ridiculous to take seriously, which is where humour comes through to reassure us of its absurdness. It becomes a revelation in the end to see scenes like the one which involves Sun Woo desperately trying to beat an arms dealer to the punch by trying to assemble a Russian firearm when his identity is exposed, or watching the banter between a Korean and Russian, before Sun Woo just gets fed up of them. It’s like Kim Ji-wun is playing with two films here but manages to stay on the rails. In the end it is totally self aware and doesn’t bog itself down in pretentious drivel, despite a little prose placed at the beginning and end.
However, as wonderfully executed as the violence, interiors and acting is the film is a little devoid of emotional development. It’s difficult to connect with Sun Woo’s character as he all too quickly falls for the girl, and while several situations have you rooting for him, the end result is simply numbing, which leaves (this reviewer) indifferent to the outcome. Its message comes through clear and its characters have each met their own fate, but by the time those credits role it soon becomes an easy thing to recover from.
In what is also a departure for Lee Byung-hun, here he goes against his usual type by playing a really hard bastard. Most of his films are romantic dramas, where he’s required to play a lost soul or cool guy for the girl to fall for, with the exception of Joint Security Area which gave him some new material to broaden his range. In A Bittersweet Life he steps up to the task of carrying a difficult role that relies far more on his actions, rather than his pretty boy image. Lee delivers one of his finest roles to date, chewing up the scenery and making short work of his enemies. He’s cool, sophisticated, fearless and soulful, but above all he’s human and he has a dream like everyone else. That dream may or may not be fulfilled during the course of the film but at least his actions are true to himself. Much like Sun Woo, Kim Ji-wun has also stayed true to himself and has once again added another superb film to his already impressive CV.
CJ Entertainment presents this director’s cut in an attractive package. Both discs come in a digi-pack which is inserted into a thin but sturdy card slipcase.
Presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1 A Bittersweet Life is given wonderful treatment. Colours are natural and black levels are pleasingly solid and deep. Contrast is slightly low but totally expected and the many night scenes fare well throughout the film. There is a spot of Edge Enhancement but it’s of a fairly high frequency and isn’t particularly distracting.
For sound we’re spoiled for choice. Korean 6.1 Dolby Digital-EX and Korean 6.1 DTS-ES are available, and I went for the latter. The DTS option features some very impressive effects that take place over the front and back L/R speakers. These range from the multitude of gun battles and fist fights, with various nuances that enhance every point of impact. Naturally the track makes good use of the subwoofer, maintaining great consistency and never takes over the central speaker where dialogue is largely focused. Jang Young-Gyu’s impressive score is catered for extremely well, being spread across the surround speakers and complimenting the action rather nicely.
Note: As with the majority of Korean DVD release this does not feature English subtitles for the extra features.
Disc one contains two audio commentaries. The first is with Kim Ji-wun, Lee Byung-hun and Kim Young-cheol. The second has Kim Ji-wun, Kim Ji-yong and Ryu Sung-hee.
Disc 2 comes with all the meaty stuff. First up is a feature called “La Dolce Vita”(17.46). This comprises of short interviews with Kim Ji-wun, Lee Byung-hun, Kim Young-cheol, Shin Min-ah, Kim Roi-ha and Hwang Jun-min. Next is “The Making of A Bittersweet Life” (25.36).This is pretty standard, showing the usual behind the scenes stuff which entails costume prepping and setting up shots. There’s some interaction between the cast and crew and some amusing moments here and there. There is also an option to select an audio commentary. “Style of A Bittersweet Life” follows and is quite a sizeable feature. Here we’re taken through several concepts which include Art, Music, Action, Sound, Special Art, Special Effects and CG Footage. Next up is a feature with a Korean title that I don’t understand. This runs for 21.22 and has several of the actors talking into camera, which is then followed by the director saying something. I’ve got no idea what they’re saying but moments look quite funny as some of them break into laughter. “Deleted and Alternate Scenes” come next. There are an impressive 18 scenes in total that come with optional commentary. Next up is a Q&A with DVDPrime members, which runs for 17.17. I presume that everyone is talking about the film. “A Bittersweet Life in Cannes” (7.40) shows various clips, from the cast and crew arriving, to another Q&A. There’s a lot of dialogue which means I can’t really be of much help. “Sweet Sleep” (3.30) shows cast and crew members’ asleep while a song plays and credits role. Finally there is an electronic press kit, which boasts a music video, teaser trailer, main trailer and a TV spot.
A Bittersweet Life is another great film in Kim Ji-wun’s cap. It examines the simple things that can change a person’s life, and like the name it carries bitter sentiment. Sun Woo’s journey is a compelling one, even if it doesn’t come together quite so well on an emotional level, and despite us knowing exactly where it‘s heading it‘s a damn fun piece of cinema.