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FILM REVIEW: A Bittersweet Life (2005)

A Bittersweet Life - Re-release Review

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Shin Min-a, Kim Yeong-cheol, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Roe-ha

Written by: Kim Jee-woon

Produced by: Lee Eugene-I, Oh Jung-wan, Choi Pyung-ho, Lee Yoo-jin

Cinematography by: Jung Hae-ji, Kim Ji-yong, Yoon Joo-hwan

Original Score by: Dalpalan, Young-gyu Jang


High ranking gangster Sun-woo finds his life on the line when his conscience comes into play and he goes against the wishes of his big boss Mr. Kang.

A Bittersweet Life Film Review


A gorgeous, visual feast with some epic action sequences and stellar performances, Kim Jee-woon's stylish, neo-noir thriller deserves so much more than just being labelled as another Korean revenge film.

Lee Byung-hun stars as Sun-woo, the manager of a classy hotel whose real job is actually that of right hand man to Mr. Kang, the owner of the hotel and gangster overlord. Kang and his crime family have been having some issues lately with another gangster businessman named President Baek and as the opening sequence plays out we realise that Sun-woo doesn't mess about when it comes to rival associates. He and his wirey henchman take out three of Mr. Baek's goons in quick succession which sets up a large part of the what will come to pass later on in the film.

Sun-woo isn't just Mr. Kang's number 2. As revealed by the big boss in an intimate meeting early on, he sees Sun-woo as more than just an employee or a close associate, he see him as a confidant and the only person he can tell his secrets to. Naturally this comes as a bit of a surprise to Sun-woo but he is soon tasked with a new, highly secret and important mission. As Mr. Kang must travel to Shanghai on business, he asks Sun-woo to keep tabs on Hee-soo, Kang's new girlfriend, who he suspects may be seeing another man. For three days he wants Sun-woo to be there for Hee-soo if she needs anything but also discreetly stake out her home and follow her is she leaves anywhere. But the most important thing is to get rid of her and her partner if Kang's suspicions are true.

A Bittersweet Life Film Review

Being a loyal employee and perhaps feeling some sort of sincere devotion to the old man having recently been on the receiving end of some high praise and endorsement, Sun-woo accepts the mission (it's not like he could refuse anyway) and does the job to the best of his ability. Initially he picks Hee-soo up for music practise (she is an accomplished cellist) and accompanies her to lunch but all the while keeping an eye on her comings and goings. And guess what? She is seeing some other man. But Sun-woo has sort of fallen for her and can't finish the job that Mr. Kang has imposed on him and he simply tells her that the relationship with this other man has to end or she will die. Thinking he has done the admirable thing for all involved, he continues on with his day-to-day duties but Mr. Kang has become aware of his "betrayal" and pays him a visit. The remainder of the film is Sun-woo's fight for survival and then his eventual plight for revenge.

The first half of the film sort of feels like an extended drawn-out version of that Vincent Vega/Mia Wallace segment from Quentin Tarantino's 1994 classic 'Pulp Fiction'. The connection between the two characters is very subtle to start with. Sun-woo is a man of action, almost emotionless and most certainly unhappy, but when he sees Hee-soo for the first time he becomes enamoured by her and zones in on the little things that she does like brushing her hair behind her ear and the way she eats her food. He begins to develop emotions that he may not have ever felt for anyone before but I like that it's understated. There are little moments when Sun-woo is around Hee-soo that changes him and makes him feel so much more fulfilment than anything his work as an enforcer can provide.

The shot compositions in this film are absolutely stunning. Visually it's breathtaking with gorgeous imagery used through every single location and set piece. And Kim Jee-woon is a master at this. You'll already know this if you've watched his previous masterpiece 'A Tale of Two Sisters'.

A Bittersweet Life Film Review

As the revenge sequence kicks in Kim Jee-woon shifts the tone of the film to a much more fast paced, ultra violent and highly stylised action film and to loop back to Tarantino for a second, there's a section where Sun-woo escapes from his captives that tonally feels like it's ripped from 'Kill Bill'. It even has some comedic moments. Obviously this is a homage to the wider influence from Hong Kong cinema classics, right up to using a smash zoom shot and some other very inventive camera angles.

Lee Byung-hun is wonderful as Kim Sun-woo, which requires a fully committed and extremely physical performance and Kim Yeong-cheol as Kang and Hwang Jung-min as Baek are enjoyable and formidable villains. We don't know an awful lot about the character and it would usually be quite difficult to understand a man of his nature's mental struggles but Byung-hun plays him with a charmful eloquence that really makes you root for him by the time the shit hits the fan.

'A Bittersweet Life' could be widely released today and still blow audiences away. An impressive portrait of unethical gangster life vs moral conscience from a filmmaker that doesn't get talked about nearly enough.

Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

-Gavin Logan

'A Bittersweet Life' is on Digital Platforms from April 8th via Blue Finch Films

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