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A Bittersweet Life (2005)
A promising revenge thriller ruined by misplaced comedy
ARTICLE INFOAs an enforcer for the Hotel Crown, Sunwoo (Lee Byung-hun - Joint Security Area) leads a stable, if unemotional life. He is favoured by his employer, the crime boss President Kang, and so is given the job of looking after Kang's young girlfriend when Kang makes a business trip abroad. But the brief contact with Heesoo awakens Sunwoo's dormant emotions, and leads him to make a small but devastating mistake that sends his life spiraling out of control.
A Bittersweet Life (2005)
film by Kim Jee-woon
rated 6.0/10 by 1 person
Over his career, writer/director Kim Jee-woon has expressed no genre preference, covering black comedy, sports and psychological horror in his three previous films, and now noirish thriller in A Bittersweet Life. This jack-of-all-trades approach is risky, but Kim hadn't missed a step in the past and he almost manages it again.
It's a characteristic of Asian cinema to throw a mix of disparate elements together and hope it all sticks together coherently. This mix usually takes the form of slapstick or comic-book violence inserted into a serious drama, and in films such as Oldboy and Zatoichi it works. In A Bittersweet Life, Kim misjudges the balancing act required and fatally undermines the film.
The first half of the film is the obligatory set-up, a slow and increasingly tense series of events during which it becomes clear that Sunwoo will engineer his own destruction. However, the film fails to capitalise on this promising start and goes off the boil after Sunwoo's fall from grace in a series of absurd scenes. The showdown between Sunwoo and his former employer is well choreographed but one can't help but laugh at the ludicrous amount of blood spurting all over the place during the supposedly moving climax. Takeshi Kitano made a deliberate choice to use excessive CG blood in Zatoichi to highlight the film's unreality and it worked as intended. Kim's use of excessive fake blood goes beyond unreality into farce.
Elsewhere the film is gritty and realistic, and some of the humour does actually work. In one scene, Sunwoo is trying to acquire a gun and finds himself racing to assemble a gun before the gunrunner sat opposite him since no other guns are to hand. Then he wastes an entire clip of bullets trying to kill a fleeing man because he's simply not a good shot.
From a technical perspective, the film is close to flawless, exhibiting the distinctive visual style seen in A Tale Of Two Sisters. The acting is excellent as well, Lee Byung-hun carrying the film as required and generally eclipsing his supporting actors.
Even if comparisons with A Tale Of Two Sisters or Kim's previous films are avoided, A Bittersweet Life remains a disappointing film on its own terms. It is somehow more frustrating that the film's flaws all arise from conscious decisions on the part of the director. I'm sure that Kim's next film will again be completely different to his previous work, and though it'll be interesting to see what genre he tackles in the future I just hope that it is a better effort than that seen here.