There’s something about knowing at the start how things are going to end that makes some films harder, not easier, to watch. A Bittersweet Life is definitely one of those films. Borrowing with a fresh bent slick staples of the gangster film genre traditionally more characteristic of Hong Kong and some Japanese cinema, director Kim Jee-woon, already well known for films like The Quiet Family and Tale of Two Sisters, deftly renders an action film that has all the emotive impact of a high-speed head on.
Lee Byung-hun (JSA) is Sun-woo, a sharp-suited fix-it man for a successful mob boss. Managing his boss’s exclusive club, he knows his place and he does his job with flawless precision. But it’s this very air of perfectionism that, almost from the outset, also seems to spell his doom. The higher you climb, the further you have to fall, after all, and Sun-woo’s so high he’s almost untouchable. Little wonder it takes all of five minutes to work out that something is about to go spectacularly wrong.
What makes Bittersweet Life more than just an excuse for gratuitous violence however is its sense not of inevitability but of injustice and fatal irony. The boss’ response to Sun-woo’s momentary lapse of reason, even after several years of unerring loyalty, is understandable and horrifyingly disproportionate to the relatively insignificant error he makes, and his underling’s outrage becomes brutally evident. And yet, it’s not really a case of calm surfaces hiding dangerous depths; the choices Sun-woo is left with are no choices at all, but it’s not like he’s suddenly a different man, only the same man cut loose, a dangerous man with cause to be somewhat upset with his former employer.
Allegory for the political and social history of South Korea or merely a reminder that even the most efficient tool can turn on the wielder, given enough reason? Kim Jee-woon says of the story, in a Q&A session captured during the 2006 Melbourne International Film Festival and included as part of the excellent extras on the disc, that he was interested in depicting the emotional devolution of someone with seemingly perfect self-control, in a kind of nihilistic revenge drama, but just as easily the film reflects his thoughts and ideas on the kinetic cultural energy of the post-communist generation.
But more than that it is an example of why he is one of the hottest directors not only in South Korea, but Asia as well. His scripting is tight and to the point, his sure hand with the genre leaving room to add more personal touches and twists, and his visuals are more than just a glossy ode to hip commercialism. What you are seeing is telling as much of a story as the story itself; Sun-woo’s shiny, immaculate surroundings at the height of his personal power, the warmth and everyday beauty of the scenes involving girlfriend-in-the-middle Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), and finally the grimy hopelessness of his environment after the stuff starts to hit the fan, all serve to reflect the states in which he exists or yearns after or finds himself in. The final showdown, where the refined order of the boss’s club comes to crashing chaos in a bullet exchange that could stand easily beside some of To’s or Woo’s best moments, is the clash of two worlds over an intangible third, and the film’s resolution is surprisingly poignant without being overly sappy.
A Bittersweet Life doesn’t cut new ground, not in levels of violence considering recent Korean cinematic fare, nor does it necessarily bring anything to the bad-boy drama Hong Kong old-hands haven’t already covered. But it does have a real handle on it’s place in the scheme of things, sitting capably somewhere between cringing thug-fest and a decent character portrait. As inevitable as our anti-hero’s end might seem at the beginning, it’s not where you get but the way that you get there that really counts.