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).
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.