Dir/scr:Kim Jee-woon South Korea. 2005. 115mins.
An ultra-violent actionnoir by Korean director Kim Jee-woon, A Bittersweet Life is a stylishstory of a faithful underworld lieutentant who crosses his boss and ends upfighting for his life against his own gang. As in his previous genre outing,the dark psycho-horror yarn A Tale Of Two Sisters, Kim shows that he isa master of atmosphere. But he also has the talent to take a genre and unpickit along one of its seams in order to give it greater depth.
Actionfans will be kept happy by some sharply shot and edited fight sequences, but asin Chan Wook-park's Old Boy, the hero's jabs, flying kicks and weaponthrusts are served in existential sauce.
ABittersweet Life netted a respectable $6.5m in its first five weeks on home turf - alittle less than fellow Cannes contender Crying Fist. However, itsoverseas prospects may be rosier: the film has already sold to Japan for arecord $3.2m, and should also play well in Western territories with appetitefor arthouse Korean genre fare like Old Boy and Memories Of Murder.
Kimhas created a vision of the dark Seoul of the night and a cast of charactersthat stand out with the hyper-real clarity of comic book. The hero, Sunwoo (LeeByung-hun), is a cool mafia henchman who works for local boss Kang (KimYoung-chul), ostensibly as a hotel manager. Sunwoo is handsome, perfectlygroomed, coiffed like a rock star, impeccable in dark suit and white shirt; buthe is so impassive and emotionally inscrutable that his only two expressions atthe beginning of the film are with tie or without.
Kangtreats Sunwoo almost a son, and when he goes off to Shanghai on business, heasks him to keep an eye on his beautiful young mistress, Heesoo (Shin Mina),who he suspects is having an affair with a younger man. Under instructions tokill them both if he finds the lovers together, Sunwoo is unable to carry outhis master's orders when the inevitable discovery is made, as he has becomeinfatuated with Heesoo - no typical gangster's moll, but a sensitive and ratherinnocent classical cellist. The love interest is the weakest element of theplot - there is little chemistry between Sunwoo and Heesoo, and we have to takehis infatuation as read.
Itis Sunwoo's moment of humanity, ironically, that unleashes the crescendo ofultra-violence which unrolls between this mid-point and the film's spectacularfinal shoot out in the designer bar of his Dolce Vita hotel. First targeted byBaek, a ruthless, scarred gangland boss who Sunwoo insulted, he is then targetedby his own gang - led by Moon Suk, a rival lieutenant who looks like themanager of a 1970s rock band, and who has always had a grudge against thepretty boy killer.
Photographyand production design work hand in hand to crank up the atmosphere; we passfrom the designer magazine world and elegant nightscapes of the opening scenes,through Heesoo's deliciously frou-frou mistress flat, to the rawpost-industrial wasteland of abatoirs and abandoned factories where Sunwoo isstrung up, bled like a pig and buried alive.
There'sa curious, camped up interlude in what looks like a Central Asian dodgy goodsemporium, a sort of gangsters' Ebay, where Sunwoo goes to get himself a shooterin order to prepare himself for the final escalation of ultra-violence. Gunsare unusual in Korean culture, and the acquisition of what in a US action flickwould be the no-brainer weapon of choice is loaded with meaning.
Inthe end, this is what saves A Bittersweet Life from the facilearcade-game morality of a shoot 'em up exploitation flick: the blood feels, andlooks, real, and Sunwoo becomes progressively weighed down by guilt and a kindof existential sadness as the bodies pile up around him.
Kimhas now done surreal black comedy (The Quiet Family), character-ledcomedy (The Foul King), psycho-horror with supernatural topping (ATale Of Two Sisters) and existential action noir. His next one can only bea sci-fi western.