Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: A Bittersweet Life / 달콤한 인생 (2005)

Last Thursday the Korean Culture Office screened ‘A Bittersweet Life’ as part of their weekly Cinema on the Park program, which perhaps through the combined talents of director Kim Ji-woon and actor Lee Byung-hun, saw the event almost packed to capacity. ‘A Bittersweet Life’ is my favourite Korean movie, and has been since I saw it for the first time back in 2006, so I felt very lucky to be asked to present it. As per usual, my fear of speaking in public saw me rattling off the carefully researched facts I’d been reading up on at a rate which threatened to break the speed of sound, but I was just happy to be presenting such a classic of Korean cinema.

For people like me who got into the Korean movie scene in the early 2000’s, chances are it was probably through one of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy movies, either ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance / 복수는 나의 것’ or ‘Old Boy / 올드보이’. While both of these movies gained wide popularity through their DVD releases in the UK, where I lived at the time, it was ‘A Bittersweet Life’ which gave most people the opportunity to watch a Korean movie on the big screen, thanks to it getting quite a high level of visibility through its marketing.

In many ways it was the breakthrough movie for both Kim Ji-woon and Lee Byung-hun. Prior to making ‘A Bittersweet Life’, Ji-woon had directed a couple of comedies, followed up by a couple of horror movies, one of which was a short film made for the Asian horror anthology, the confusingly titled ‘Three: Extremes 2’. ‘A Bittersweet Life’ was the first time he’d try his hand at a noir style gangster thriller, and it would also be the first time he’d work with Lee Byung-hun. Byung-hun had up until this point mostly been cast in roles designed to provide eye candy to his large female fan base, so critics were curious to see if he could pull off the role of a gangster torn between allegiances.

As it happened, the image he’d create of the sharply dressed tough guy hiding a softer side would be one that would get channeled time and time again in subsequent movies, from Won Bin in ‘The Man from Nowhere / 아저씨’ to So Ji-sub in ‘A Company Man / 회사원’. Their collaboration was so successful that Byung-hun would team up with Ji-woon again in the directors next couple of movies, first of all in 2008’s ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird / 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈’, and then again in 2010’s controversial ‘I Saw the Devil / 악마를 보았다’. After that the pair both went to try their hand at Hollywood, with Ji-woon directing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback movie ‘The Last Stand’, & Byung-hun landing the role of Storm Shadow in ‘G.I. Joe’ & its sequel, the latter of which brought the man himself to Sydney earlier this year.

The plot of ‘A Bittersweet Life’ is straightforward in its structure. The head of the organization, played by Kim Young-cheol (who would face off against Byung-hun again in the 2009 drama ‘IRIS / 아이리스’) has to go on a business trip, so asks Byung-hun to keep any eye on a young girl he’s having a relationship with, as he suspects she may be in a relationship with another man. The girl is played by Sin Min-ah, who is perhaps most recognizable to western audiences from the 2001 movie ‘Volcano High / 화산고’ (which was infamously acquired by MTV for US distribution, who baffling made the decision to have the movie dubbed by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Method Man, & Tracy Morgan).

What Byung-hun discovers, and the decision he makes based on his discovery, is what the whole movie hinges on, and what ultimately brings him a lot of pain. While critics have often noted that Ji-woon’s subsequent efforts seem to be lacking in any substance or deeper meaning, ‘A Bittersweet Life’ balances the goings on in its story with an underlying message, of which can be openly interpreted through the opening and closing sequences of the move.

As with all of Ji-woon’s movies, there are moments of black humour thrown in during various scenes that you know shouldn’t work, but somehow they do, and the whole production is great to look at. Ji-woon provides Byung-hun’s character with a satisfying character arc which takes him from a cocky and calculating tough guy, to a man driven by revenge confused by his own feelings over the actions he’s taken. While today the Korean revenge thriller has almost become a genre unto itself, ‘A Bittersweet Life’ remains a movie which stands out from the crowd, indeed a lot of that crowd are imitators of the exact style Ji-woon set out to create.

It’s worth noting that ‘A Bittersweet Life’ was the last movie Ji-woon has left relatively untouched. After the original theatrical release in Korea he went back and made various touch ups to certain scenes, the result of which were the Directors Cut, and is now generally the only version available. With both 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird' and 'I Saw the Devil', he frustratingly released both a Korean version and an International version, both of which contained some scenes that weren’t in the other, meaning fans were left wondering which is the definitive version. Thankfully ‘A Bittersweet Life’ didn’t suffer from this fate, and if anyone classes themselves as a fan of Korean cinema and still hasn’t seen it, they owe it to themselves to check this out as soon as possible.

Paul Bramhall


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As a big fan of Ji-woon KIM, this is the best of his movie for me to date. I kind of liked his movie always but he started being special to me since " A Tale of two sisters" and JiWoon achieved something more with " A bitter Sweet Life", I believe.

    Until, the Foul King, Jinwoon had been making good Genre movies skillfully with good sense of humor with warm eyes for ordinary people. However, from A tale of two sisters, he started to throw "an underlying message, of which can be openly interpreted" as Paul said.

    Dear Paul, I cannot agree more. You perfectly described how it is. I call this in other way " throwing Jigsaw puzzles of open interpretation". Personally, I love movies with complicated Jigsaw puzzles with open questions. This is the sign of "memorable" or a classic movie for me. That is the reason why I watch movies - to put the jigsaw puzzles!!!

    A bitter sweet life was one big step ahead from " A tale..", I believe. Based on his success of previous movies and his confidence of his own ability as a director, Ji-Woon seemed to achieve more than showing off his ability to master another genre of movie, namely action genre with top casting, stunning camera work ( based on enough investment) and well structured story telling as other good directors may do . As Paul said, he also presented his unique skill to mix black humor with this movie and deep meaning behind. That is something special. However the reason why I really love this director is not theses abilities he has. In fact, it is about what he does not have.

    Somehow, Ji-woon does not show the attitude that other talented Korean movie directors have shown when they reached to this point of achievement. The attitude is called " responsible attitude of cine artist who has to make some kind of master piece" Personally I do not like this kind of responsible attitude because this attitude suffocate me when I watch their movies in very subtle way. Somehow ,Ji-woon has never suffocated me with the attitude. So I cannot help loving him. Unfortunately that was the time when people in Korea started to criticize him as a director who is not deep enough besides his talents.Criticism against him seemed to reach at its peak with " The good, the bad...." in Korea. So unfair....but who cares? He still seems to enjoy movie making. I still enjoy his movies whether he makes a bit better or worse movies.

    Thank you Paul. Great, careful and well balanced view, again!

  3. Thanks for the comment Rosa, glad you enjoyed the review. I somewhat understand the criticism aimed towards him after 'A Bittersweet Life'. While for me it wasn't really an issue, there's no doubt that his subsequent movies have gone more for a pure visceral thrill over any deeper meanings behind the narrative.

    For me there's absolutely nothing wrong with delivering a movie which has been made as a thrill ride and nothing more, however people looking for more than that will be understandably disappointed. Regardless, Ji-woon has proven to be the master of every genre he's turned his hand to so far - comedy, horror, gangpei, revenge thriller, and even western (or kimchi western, as 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird' has become affectionately known!). Based on that alone, I think any director who doesn't settle for simply recycling whatever genre works best for them over and over again has to be admired.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. OMG..I accidentally remove my long comment...

  5. Another great write-up Paul. Thanks for that, and for helping more people see this killer cool film. I actually just lent this to my son yesterday! It's one of my favorite Korean films, and I'm so glad I got to see it in the cinema.

    Miss Rosa Lee- great points in your comments!