Every now and then a film I watch a film that leaves me completely astounded, and occasionally even restores my faith in Cinema. A Bittersweet Life is one of these films, it isn't particularly original as it is made up of elements that will be familiar to most film buffs, it has no monumental performances from it's cast, and makes no major technical breakthroughs. And yet it has something that is not often seen in recent films, it has a deliberate sense of self, an identity that I find lacking in many similar films these days, and more importantly, it has a soul.
Perhaps this is because it is a Korean film (original title: Dalkomhan insaeng), and the Korean film industry is a relatively new one that seems to be at the height of it's powers at the moment, producing one great film after another and completely outdoing Hollywood in one of their own staple genres, the Thriller, in particularly the investigative thriller (police vs psychos).
A Bittersweet life isn't really a detective thriller, I'd say if it had to be put into a genre, it would be a gangster film.
But it surpasses all recent gangster films produced by Hollywood, which isn't very hard as it's a genre that seems to have died out when Scorsese moved away from it in the late 90's. But the film successful avoids all the clichés of the genre, there is no camaraderie between criminals, daring robberies and shoot-outs with the police, instead we are shown what is essentially a business. This may not sound like a typical gangster film, but the truth is that gangsterism itself has changed, so of course films have to change with it. Gone are the old days of the goodfellas, now it is enterprises making illegal transactions which they occasionally have to enforce or protect in violent manners.
As I previously remarked, this film does not really bring anything original in terms of content to the genre, we have all the similar faces, the cool, blank faced enforcer (are main character in this case), the kindly looking boss with a heart of steel, the oblivious young woman caught up in the middle of all this, the flamboyant petty criminals, the psychotic disfigured villain etc... And yet I strongly believe that originality is not what it takes to make a great film, it is the amount of skill with which the directors puts all these pieces together, most of the time the film will feel like a lazy rehashing of ideas that have been put to better use previously, but occasionally one comes across a film that takes all the familiar pieces and forms a surprising masterpiece with them.
A Bittersweet isn't a typical rise and fall gangster film, it begins with the main character, named Sun Woo, who is at the top of his game, a enforcer for "a committee" and a manager of a hotel. He is a cold, calculating and highly skilled young man, who life revolves around his job, he has no personal contacts and shows little to no emotion. However his prospects are promising and appear secure, he is a rising man in the underworld.
Yet all this success is at the cost of his very humanity, he has become little more than a cold hearted machine, obeying the command of his boss without question and brutally injuring those who stand in his way.
But soon he is to discover his humanity and unearth his emotions, when put into contact with a young woman in perilous circumstances. For the first time in his career, he takes a decision clouded by his emotions, a decision that will save the life of this young woman and her lover while putting his own in terrible danger.
Here a downward spiral is entered, one bad decisions leads to another and Sun Woo's arrogant nature and inability to express and recognise his emotions becomes his downfall. He is captured by his enemies and brutally beaten, before being turned over to his own side who caught wind of his betrayal, he is subjected to several ordeals, but escapes during one of the best fight scenes I've seen on film for quite some time. Forget the one take corridor fight from Oldboy, this film contains far superior action scenes, brilliant choreographed, chillingly executed by the actors, and stunningly well shot.
From this point onwards, the film descends further and further into a vicious circle of violence, leaving none of the characters involved untouched. Such a story can only end in tragedy, as more and more people are sucked into to the storm of bullets.
The action scenes in the latter part of the film literally are storms of bullets, but it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary as so much is at stake. For despite Sun Woo's nature, I still wished that he could be given the opportunity to live his life, instead of being bound to his committee. His fate is tragic, for he caught a glimpse of a life that could never be his, a life shared with a loved one. But his past history of violence caught up with him and dashed all his dreams, with nothing left to loose, he sets out to exact revenge on those responsible for his torment and the emptiness of his life.
The yearning he feels for a different life is given form in the shape of Heesoo, the young woman he is assigned to protect. Some may find her a very underdeveloped character, but that is the point, she is mysterious and out of reach for Sun Woo, he cannot understand her yet quickly falls in love with her and what she represents. In one of the films most moving scenes, we see Sun Woo watching Heesoo play her cello, he seems content and smiles, the only time he does so in the entire film, before he is plunged into mind-numbing violence and cruelty.
The only experience I had of Je Woon Kim's work before watching this film is his gleeful, cartoonish and action packed Spaghetti Western homage, The Good The Bad and The Weird. As much as I enjoyed that film, it did not make me consider than Je Woon Kim could display such talent as he does with A Bittersweet Life. It is meticulously crafted, with fluid tacking shots and brilliant use of light, especially in the night sequences in the city. Much of the camera work on display is subtle and restrained, although if you pay attention you can notice a great number of little touches and creative flourishes, especially during the action scenes and a couple of the driving scenes, in which the camera seems to be attached to the characters back and moves with him. One shot is particular left me open-mouthed, that would be one that occurs in the final action sequence, in which Sun Woo shoots one of his last opponents, while the camera pans back from Sun Woo to reveal his enemy firing at him. All this done at a higher speed than any other shot in the film. This simple shot caught my attention above all others and is still vividly in my mind as I write this review.
On the whole, the cinematography was quite beautiful, capturing the urban landscapes in which the story takes place marvellously. It brings to mind the work of Michael Mann, particularly his film Collateral, filled with night shots of the city, using the lights to great effect. The rest of the technical side of the film is admirably done, with a score that perfectly underlines the story and the actions upon screen while never overshadowing them, and performances that may not rank among some of the best I've seen, but were certainly worthy of the awards they received. Byung-hun Lee in particular, was impressive as the main character, for it is a performance made up entirely of subtleties. The character is largely inexpressive, and has little understanding of his own emotions making it difficult for the audience to comprehend what he is feeling. However Lee fits the role perfectly, being able to portray the stone faced enforcer just as convincingly as the other side to the character, the side in search of some meaning for his life.
One aspect I admired about the film was the entirely unapologetic nature with which it handled the violence, it was not glorified nor was it condemned, it was just present and that is all. It also subtly overturns a few cliches, avoiding a happy ending and thankfully avoiding an element that has long annoyed me in revenge films, often the climax of the revenge film is the confrontation between the main character (the victim) and the main antagonist (the object of his revenge), but sometimes the antagonist life is spared, I always find this implausible even though I understand what the writers are trying to convey.
However this film doesn't take the easy way out, and goes the whole way with the violence and bloodshed, no characters are immune to it. Yet I did not find it quite so disturbing as it could have been, perhaps because it chose to be more stylised than gritty, it is generally fast, and while bloody, there is no lingering shots of wounds and such, the film doesn't revel in it's violence, but treats it in a very matter of fact why, much like Sun Woo himself.
Furthermore, the total absence of any back-story was most refreshing, why directors and writers feel the need to indulge in lengthy and useless back-stories is beyond me, especially when it comes to a film of this kind. In fact the lack of exposition works in the films favour, accentuating the dullness and emptiness of Sun Woo's life, as one can assume by his manner and bearing that he has been going through these motions for many years. All we need to know of teh character is presented in the first few scenes of the film, him sitting alone, silently eating a cake, him ordering those under him around while barely uttering a word, him beating 3 men senseless in cold blood to him taking order and waiting upon his boss. This is all the exposition needed and I'm glad for once that the director understood that.
The ending is left ambiguous, some have noted a similarity to the end of Taxi Driver, as Sun Woo looks at a reflection of himself and is by all appearances very much alive and well. based on this ending scene, some may consider the events that have taken place to be little more than a day dream, but I see it rather as a flashback, the last thing he sees and the last we see. It is of himself in obviously better times, looking eager and energetic, perhaps at the start of his criminal career, looking forward to great things, unaware of what is to come. That is how I interpreted the end but there are some strong arguments to be made in favour of the film being a dream sequence.
All in all, A Bittersweet Life is a masterpiece of modern cinema and one of the finest films to come out of Korean in recent years. It has revived my interest in Korean cinema, and soon I shall be watching some of Kim Ki Duk's films and may even check out some of Park Chan Wook's work, despite my indifference towards Oldboy.
It seems pretty evident that South Korea has surpassed Hollywood in this particular genre, for no recent Hollywood film can compare to the works these directors have been producing over the past few years. There is a daringness and a powerful drive behind these films that seems to be lacking in Hollywood these days; and while some of them are probably far too violent and disturbing for my taste, I am sure I will discover many more great films as I venture further into Korea's film industry.
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