A Bittersweet Life Review
If Douglas Sirk had ever got together with Brian De Palma and made a Korean action thriller, the result might have been something like A Bittersweet Life. Rather like the films of Park Chan-wook, it cranks up the melodrama to the maximum and intersperses the slightly hysterical theatricals with bursts of incredibly brutal violence. It’s not particularly original but the sheer verve of director Kim Ji-woon is such that you’re far too involved to care.
The film is a gangster movie dealing with Asian mobsters who are apparently even more ruthless than their American counterparts. Kim Sun-woo (Byung-hun) is a small-time mob enforcer who works for Kang (Yung-cheol) and becomes unwillingly involved in his boss’s love life. Kang is involved in a relationship with a much younger woman, Hee-soo (Min-a), and is convinced that she is having an affair with a younger man. Kang, away for a weekend, asks Sun-woo to look out for signs of the treachery and deal appropriately with anything he discovers. But Sun-woo, discovering such a betrayal, allows a moment of compassion to get in the way of his business sense, and seals his fate.
To describe the style of A Bittersweet Life as baroque would be to somehow do it an injustice. It’s highly decorated, very flamboyant and yet it’s all of a piece because it’s essentially a long string of sedulously furbished set-pieces which come together through the heavily stylised vision of Kim Ji-woon. He favours strong, sometimes over-saturated colours, elaborate crane shots, harsh lighting contrasts, extreme close-ups, the use of various barriers to make patterns in front of faces, and a very interesting editing technique; interesting because it’s not the fast-moving MTV style that we get in American action movies where there’s no room to breathe in case the popcorn- guzzlers in the stalls get bored. Rather, the style is measured with shots given due consideration and cuts varying from very quick to remarkably slow – the fight scenes show this very well, particularly an early demonstration of martial arts where we get a chance to appreciate the elegant choreography in a way which nowadays we often miss. Some aspects of his visual style resemble Michael Mann, especially Thief, but the overall effect is highly distinctive.
The emotional intensity of the film is also distinctive, recalling some of De Palma’s more personal work such as Blow Out. The central character of Sun-woo is not unlike John Travolta’s Jack in that film, trying desperately to do the right thing yet somehow destined to fuck up both his life and everyone else’s. Jack’s erotic obsession with Nancy Allen’s hooker was more explicitly stated than Sun-woo’s feelings for Hee-soo but the general tone of doomed romanticism is very similar indeed. Sun-woo can’t express his feelings and his retentiveness is very moving. His single moment of compassion in the film, the one time where he allows his emotions to get the better of his judgement, is the root of his downfall. It’s a powerful concept, making Sun-woo something of a classical tragic hero with a fatal flaw. All of this reveals Ji-woon’s ancestry as lying more with American directors of the 1970s – De Palma and Scorsese particularly - than with the recent wave of Asian action movies. This makes it something of a cousin to Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, although A Bittersweet Life lacks the deliberately over-the-top Jacobean tragedy influences of that film.
Lee Byung-hun’s performance is quite magnificent. There are comments on the DVD about his resemblance to Alain Delon – presumably the reference is to Melville’s cop movies – but he takes the camera so well that he could be any one of ten or more classic leading men. He’s got the presence of a great Hollywood star and the looks of a pin-up so it would be no surprise if he became an international star. The role of Sun-woo is a tricky one, allowing for very little display of emotion until the end of the film – he doesn’t smile until the very final moments. He has to display a series of inner conflicts without playing them out and he does so with great skill. I particularly like the moment when he’s weighing up whether or not to ring Kang to tell him about Hee-soo’s betrayal and a world of crisis plays in his eyes without his expression obviously changing. This is a combination of great direction and skilled acting and it’s a pleasure to watch.
The violence of the film has been much discussed and it’s certainly more brutal than most Western action movies, fully earning the ‘18’ certificate which similar American films avoid like the plague. But the upsetting thing about the film is its gut impact and not so much the bloody brutality which ultimately litters the final scene with corpses. Kim Ji-woon stages the action with gusto and plenty of gore but it always comes out of character and narrative and isn’t just shovelled in to divert the audience. This reminded me of Scorsese’s gangster movies, particularly Goodfellas - and there’s what looks like a homage to Tommy’s “Funny?” sequence early on which leads to an unusual use of a telephone. The torture scenes, during which Sun-woo takes more punishment than John Rambo, are hard to watch but, again, this is more because of our investment in the character than any particularly graphic details. Incidentally, you may notice a hint of Bunuel at the end of Sun-woo’s ultimate ordeal. Like most good directors, Ji-woon knows when to steal from the best.
If the prevailing mood of the film is sometimes overwhelmingly grim then it is lightened by some very quirky humour. This largely comes from some of the characters – I particularly liked Kang’s appalling subordinate Mun-suk with an Iron Maiden hairstyle and a hyena laugh. Notable in this respect is an extended scene which could come out of a Coen brothers film where Sun-woo meets a bizarre group of arms dealers, two of whom carry on like a comic cross-talk act while a third is obsessed with the mechanics of assembling firearms. This should come across as a little jarring – the tumbleweed which opens the scene is a little Big Lebowski - but it’s actually welcome comic relief.
A Bittersweet Life is tough as hell, funny, riveting and remarkably moving. It has a visual dexterity which demonstrates that Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters wasn’t a flash in the pan and a moral seriousness that is refreshingly complex. A certain knowledge of honour systems within Asian crime might be useful but it’s not something I possess and I didn’t find it a disadvantage. I simply assumed that humiliation and betrayal are particularly heinous crimes to a gang boss and took it from there. The ending, somewhat ambiguous but obviously (to this viewer) a flashback bathed in hope, is a beautiful moment with an epiphany that serves as a flame in the prevailing darkness of the film and offer a measure of hope which the rest of it would seem to deny.
Tartan’s DVD release of A Bittersweet Life in their Asia Extreme strand is a very nice-looking disc. There’s a lack of extras but the transfer is everything it should be.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a beauty. Blacks are strong and rich, colours are very pleasing and there’s loads of detail. I did notice a spot of aliasing here and there and occasional over-enhancement but on the whole this looks a treat. There is a slightly grainy appearance at times but this looks suitably filmic.
The Korean soundtracks are equally good. The best is the DTS 5.1 Surround option which has superb clarity and features a multitude of surround effects, particularly during the very noisy gun battles towards the end. There’s plenty of activity from the sub as well. The DD 5.1 option is excellent too but lacking some of the involvement of the DTS track. A 2.0 option is also available. There are English subtitles which are very clear.
The main extras, along with a selection of trailers, are some cast and crew interviews and a piece about the film’s reception in Cannes. All of these are in Korean and subtitled in English. There’s a lot of mutual back-slapping but a few insights into the film make their way through and it’s worth taking a look at the interviews to see how Ji-woon sees his film.