A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Writer: Jee-woon Kim
Actors: Byung-hun Lee, Min-a Shin, Yeong-cheoi Kim
I’ve been a fan of Jee-Woon Kim (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), I Saw the Devil (2010)) for years, because his frames all seem packed to the brim with beauty, action, and tense emotion. It wasn’t until recently that I watched A Bittersweet Life (2005), Kim’s dark and gorgeous gangster tragedy, and I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Kim here takes a more-or-less standard revenge plot and without tinkering with its mechanics too much, creates a spectacular and punishing journey, one filled with elegantly staged action scenes and a breathtaking color palette.
The film opens on Byung-Hun Lee stalking down a gorgeous, severely lit hallway, wearing a face made for business. Lee’s performance is masterful, revealing his character as a master of all things deadly, coming to hate his world and everything it stands for. This character, Sun-woo, opens the movie dripping with panache. His gaze, which is like steel yet unaccountably soft, betrays a seemingly impossible level of expertise. He dispatches foes quickly, barely breaking a sweat. What makes Byung-Hun’s performance remarkable and acutely emotional is the fear in his eyes, and the way that this fear is proven to be truly justified.
Sun-woo’s fear is proven necessary as throughout the film he is beaten, stabbed, hung by his wrists, buried alive, and shot repeatedly. All of this happens in some of the most captivating and visually enthralling action sequences I’ve ever seen. The film’s director, Jee-Woon Kim has a gift for finding ways to make what could be simply brutal and horrifying, and using his flair to create entrancing visual details. One of these scenes, in which Sun-woo fends off a gang of toughs with a flaming two-by-four that explodes in sparks every time it hits someone is impossible to forget (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imqiuSOYVzs). This sequence alone is so masterful it could deserve its own essay, delving into its use of motion and rhythm, but the film is full of scenes that match it.
All of this visual artistry and intense excitement would mean nothing, of course, if the performances weren’t all as exemplary as they are. Min-a Shin, as the films only female role, embodies her character with hopeless depression, and Oh Dai-su, as the central villain’s main henchman, brings truly pitiless, smiling sadism to his part. Both of these performances are exceptional, but it is Yeong-cheoi Kim, as the film’s true central villain, that brings emotionless, typical evil into his character. Watching his dead eyes as he stands over his victim is truly chilling All of these spectacular and horrifying elements make A Bittersweet Life the best action film of a decade or more, and one not to be missed.