Looking at it now, Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life seems very much of its time in the swift rise in popularity that Korean cinema experienced in the early 2000s. Arriving two years after Park Chan-wook’s slick, much-revered Oldboy (2003), A Bittersweet Life carries over certain hallmarks that made that film so widely appealing – chiefly a highly polished approach to violence, revenge and the consequent spiritual fallout that so often brings down those enmeshed in such matters. Such films can easily spark debates and questions over that age-old matter of style over substance and whether the feats accomplished by the former can make up for the apparent shortcomings of the latter. And for many, A Bittersweet Life is bound to only raise more such sparks.
Sometime Park and regular Kim collaborator Lee Byung-hun stars as Sun-woo, a lean engine of efficiency who serves crime boss President Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol) as an enforcer. The place of trust the older man gives him is made evident when he is given a very personal assignment: to follow and watch Kang’s young girlfriend Hee-soo (Shin Min-a) for three days to see if she is romantically involved with anyone else. Sun-woo takes on this task just as relations between Kang’s group and that of President Baek (Hwang Jeong-min), another boss, are made tenser by a humiliating incident he initiates in the opening scene. It is eventually discovered that Hee-soo is, in fact, seeing another man who is closer to her age than Kang, but rather than informing his superior or, as he was more chillingly instructed, killing the traitorous couple, Sun-woo instead exercises mercy. This is the main event that, coinciding with his growing animosity against Baek and his men, brings about a swift and bloody upheaval of the life Sun-woo once so securely enjoyed.
Starting with a black-and-white image of a weeping willow’s branches swaying in the wind, A Bittersweet Life connects its elaborate, extended displays of brutality to underlying philosophical themes surrounding Sun-woo’s trajectory. When things start to go wrong, one can’t help but ponder the potential flaws or causes that led to this drastic reversal of fortune. Lee’s character appears to us as a distanced, cool figure from his first appearance as he quietly eats an exquisite dessert, his reflection captured in a window overlooking the city. He consistently confronts difficulties in an uncompromising, no-nonsense manner – perhaps it is this attitude’s accompanying pride, posing as integrity, that betrays him. It certainly fuels the unpleasantness he experiences from Baek, his cronies and Mun-suk (Kim Roe-ha), a rude and jittery member of Kang’s group. Yet the real clue is in both the film’s English title and the irony of the Korean title, which directly translates as The Sweet Life (which, in turn, is echoed in the name of the central sky lounge, La Dolce Vita). For it is apparent that Sun-woo doesn’t really live much of a life, as evidenced by the minimally furnished apartment where he lives, his distance from others (perhaps best illustrated in the scenes in which he tails Hee-soo, watching her with her secret boyfriend from afar), and the sad servitude that binds him to Kang. Only in encountering the naïve yet sweet Hee-soo is his heart genuinely stirred, particularly in a key sequence in which he watches her perform her cello, a long take lingering upon the smile she gives him.
In terms of both running time and virtuosity, A Bittersweet Life is certainly more dedicated to effects rather than causes. Several scenes serve as impressively constructed action showcases while others map out in grimy detail the pain and suffering both experienced and dispensed by Sun-woo. His downfall is visually emphasized through the way his crisp, well-dressed appearance becomes increasingly dirtied by torrents of blood, mud and vomit. The diverse range of shifty characters dotted throughout his journey include familiar character actor Oh Dal-su as a shady gun seller who, with his Russian partner, adds a welcome dose of humor to the otherwise oppressively grim proceedings.
Tour-de-force sequences like a lesson in gun assembly that becomes a frantic life-or-death contest and the final, bullet-filled showdown certify Kim’s skill at both suspense and spectacle. Whether A Bittersweet Life is viewed as an overly clinical art-genre object or a captivating moral tale in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville (which I regard it as), it would be difficult if not impossible to ignore the impressiveness of the Swiss Watch mechanics that Kim perfectly engineers to accommodate his story material.
Marc Saint-Cyr is an occasional contributor to the VCinema Blog and has most recently appeared on the VCinema Podcast to participate in its three-part series on the New Taiwan Cinema. He is a staff writer for the J-Film Pow-Wow and has contributed to the first and second volumes of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan and World Film Locations: Tokyo from Intellect Ltd. as well as such publications as Midnight Eye, Row Three, Senses of Cinema and Toronto Film Scene.