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Kim Sun-Woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a hotel manager - but no ordinary one. He also happens to be the right hand man of Kang - a mob boss. One day, Kang - suspicious of his girlfriend Hee Soo of being unfaithful to him - asks the cool, calculated and efficient Sun Woo to take care of her. However, when Sun Woo sees her, he falls for her and when he sees her with another man, finds himself unable to kill her. Kang, furious at this, sets his gang members onto Sun Woo to kill him. And after a harsh torture scene, Sun Woo decides enough is enough, and sets off to confront Kang.
Directed by Kim Jee Woon - one of my favourite directors - who you might know as the director of such films as the hilarious Quiet Family, the chilling A Tale of Two Sisters, and the brilliant The Good, the Bad and the Weird (which also starred Lee Byung-hun as the Bad). Kim Jee Woon is no stranger to stunning camera work and is certainly no novice film maker.
A Bittersweet Life is a cold, harsh film with some brilliant action choreography, some stellar acting and a plotline so gritty it makes The Dark Knight look like Batman and Robin. It's a typical story of revenge, but it's done with such style and the entire story runs so smoothly. The action sequences are more like dances and through all the violence and hatred and rage, it's really quite beautiful.
The story is gripping from start to finish and climaxes in some pretty intense scenes which a lot of people will probably find a bit much to watch. While it's not overly violent (we're not talking Takashi Miike here, after all), it's really unnerving and quite uncomfortable at times. There are moments where you can really feel Sun Woo's pain.
Kim Jee Woon here manages to let us know that no only can he do comedies and horrors, he can make a very good action film, mixing in his usual doses of stunning camera work and amazing visuals with some really dynamic characters and some excellent actors. And although unrelated, I love the irony of giving the English title of the film as "A Bittersweet Life" when both the Korean title and the name of the hotel Sun Woo works at is called The Sweet Life.
So if you're looking for some really gripping storytelling with some seriously intense action and great character development - A Bittersweet Life is for you.
This is a review of the Tartan DVD.
I usually avoid going to Blockbuster because the cheap movies [5 for £5] are nearly always so badly scratched that they don't work in my dvd player. What the hell do people get up to with dvds?, seems like they've been used as frisbees/coasters/tea strainers, anything except putting it in your dvd player and watching it. Anyway, the other day I decided to get out 5 movies including a couple of 'Asia Extreme' movies. I've reviewed 'Gozu', now here's my review of 'A Bittersweet Life'.
'A Bittersweet Life' is a South Korean film made in 2005 by director Kim ji-Woon. I've not seen any of his films before but he comes highly recommended by quite a few film critics. The film's plot concerns a hotel 'enforcer' Kim Sun-Woo [Lee Byung-hun] who works for a Korean Mafia boss. The boss, who goes by the name of Kang, uses Sun-Woo to sort out all of his nasty business. If he wants 'errands' taken care of he goes to Sun-Woo. In the opening section of the film we are shown Sun-Woo dispatching a group of men who are at his boss's plush hotel causing trouble.
Sun-Woo is the kind of person that can easily beat up 5 men on his own using a combination of lightening fast martial arts moves and quick reflexes. Sun-Woo is given the job of spying on Kang's young lover whilst he goes away for a few days on a business trip. If Sun-Woo encounters the girl engaging in any activities with another man [as Kang suspects] then Sun-Woo is to kill both the young woman and her lover. When Sun-Woo is faced with this reality he cannot go through with it and develops some affection for the woman. On Kang's return there is the inevitable show down and the film turns into a sort of Korean 'Get Carter' as Sun-Woo has to defend himself against Kang's personal gang of heavies whilst also trying to find out why his boss 'hates' him so much after he has served him loyally for many years.
Thrown into this mix, Sun-Woo much also protect himself from the son of a rival gang, Baek Jr, and a corrupt henchman from his own organisation who wants to do dealings behind Kang's back and do business with the Baek crime family.
THE GOOD STUFF
The idea of 'a man wronged, who then seeks his revenge' is an age old premise in films and has probably been done to death. Here the story, characters and superbly orchestrated fight scenes inject new life into a tired formula. There are a couple of scenes where it is not quite convincing that Sun-Woo is managing to fight his way out of the situation, I mean if 10 people are coming at you full on it doesn't really matter how good a fighter you are, one of them is going to break through and cause some damage. Despite these limitations and what appeared to be a relatively small budget, Director Kim Ji-woon produces a highly entertaining and watchable gangster movie.
I loved this, and would happily watch it a few more times. The title of the film refers to a slightly melodramatic theme of a 'wasted life' which the character of Sun-Woo feels throughout the story. This was a little unneccessary I thought and did little to advance what was going on. So, 'its a bittersweet life because Sun-Woo could have had a family and a respectable job, instead of being a gangster's henchman?', well maybe..... but I don't think that needed to be shown in the way it is here. Sort of like Jack Carter suddenly getting all teary eyed as he sees a montage of himself walking on a beach with the wife he never had, their newly born son and a baby puppy. I'm being a bit harsh because 'A Bittersweet Life' is nowhere near that clumsy, and is fairly subtle with its underlying theme, but there were several moments where I thought 'that is serious cheese, why is that there?' [probably a bit like eating a packet of 'Cheese Moments', read jjjj's review of this 'horrific experience'].
To conclude, 'A Bittersweet Life' was a great film and transcended its weaknesses by just being very good and outstanding in most quarters. Lee Byung-hun has found a recent conversion to Hollywood in the dreadful 'GI Joe: Rise Of The Cobra' film [hope his future choices are a bit better!], but the other cast members will be unfamiliar to most viewers. The performances were good by all concerned though, and Kim Ji-woon is certainly a director whose other films I shall now be checking out.
The DVD has a standard set of extras with a 'subtitles off' option and scene selection. There is sadly no commentary track, though there is a mildly entertaining set of interviews with the director and cast [I must admit I didn't watch the whole thing]. There is a special edition 2 disc version out there, but that seems to be very expensive on Amazon UK so I will be purchasing the standard 1 disc version which is still available for about £5. Highly recommended.
A Bittersweet Life is a 2005 South Korean film from director Kim Ji-woon (A Tale Of Two Sisters).
Kim Sun-woo works as a loyal enforcer in the hotel run by gangster Kang. The ruthless boss is suspicious that his young mistress Heesoo if having an affair and asks Sun-woo to shadow her whilst Kang is away on business and kill both of them if his suspicions turn out to be correct. During the course of doing so, Sun-woo comes to like the girl and her innocence. Upon discovering that Heesoo is having a relationship with a young man, Sun-woo makes the decision not to kill them but to tell them that they are forbidden from seeing one another again. This act of mercy comes back to haunt Sun-woo in a violent and bloody manner....
This is very much a top notch action film. The beauty of the film for me is in the simplicity with which the story is told. It is not as profound as it sometimes attempts to be, but I think that works in its favour - The story is simply about honour and revenge and the lengths men will go to to gain both. When the action does occur it is choreographed brilliantly, particularly one scene where an unarmed Sun-woo has to take on a seemingly insurmountable number of Kang's henchmen.
The film also looks stunning, with the glass fronts and neon lights of Korea making it a tempting destination to visit. The characters are all dressed immaculately as well, none more so than our hero.
Lee Byung-hun deserves credit for carrying this film as Kim Sun-woo. Despite the fact that he is essentially a gangster capable of extreme violence, he elicits the necessary sympathy from showing his stifled life and the reason that his need to preserve something pure in Heesoo leads to his downfall. A mention also to the actor who plays Baek Jr (I've looked it up but can't find it), gives a good performance as the sadistic son of another gangster, he provides a good villain to the piece in addition to the fairly one dimensional Mr Kang.
A very stylish, brilliantly performed action film. Enjoy.
Kim Sun-Woo is a loyal enforcer and manager of a hotel for Kang. Kang suspects his mistress (Hee-Soo) is cheating on him and gives Sun-Woo the task of finding out if this happens to be true. Sun-Woo appears to be drawn to Hee-Soo's innocence.
Sun-Woo discovers Hee-Soo is cheating on Kang but instead of reporting this to Kang he agrees to spare them provided they do not see one another again. Unfortunately for Sun-Woo, Kang finds out.
I came to this film having seen A Tale of Two Sisters, also directed by Kim Ji-Woon, and I was not disappointed. There is slightly more blood than in your typical action film but nothing to cause concern. As for the content, it is a deeper film than you will have come to expect from the action genre. It's not full of car chases and explosions. Yes there are hand-to-hand fight sequences and at least two shooting incidents but the plot itself takes centre stage. Whilst I've never been a fan of Lee Byung-Hun he delivers a fantastic performance as Sun-Woo.
Well worth a look.
Posted on Ciao.
The Koreans really have been doing it right recently. With the highly successfull vengeance series, Chan Wook Park cemented his unique take on the revenge flick to a highly awed Western audience. It is no surprise that a similiar themed film entitled 'A Bittersweet Life' by Ji-Woon Kim was met with high praise at Cannes 2005. Kim secured internation praise with the brilliantly brooding 'Tale of Two sisters' in 2003 (recently remade as the unborn?) and his following film was just as breath taking.
A Bittersweet Life follows the life of loyal gangster Sun-Woo, who has slowly risen to the higher ranks within the 'family'. Calm and collected, Sun-Woo is asked by his boss to watch his younger girlfriend, citing paranoia she may be cheating on him. Sun-Woo obliges, and it is from here that the film takes its swerve.
Slickly directed with excellent action pieces inserted within a slow and curious pacing, this tale unfolds in front of us with all the exburent vitality of a (good) Tarantino flick. The character development is such that we really are thurst into the one-tracked world of Sun Woo, and this is thanks to a masterful performance of Byung-hun Lee as the stoic Sun Woo. His tranquil demeaneur is broken only by lashes of violence and, in the end, breakdown not only through action but also image.
While the film is full of obvious inspirations and nods to fellow directors (Scorsese, Tarantino, and Woo being obvious) it would be unfair to say this is style over substance. On the contary, Kim has crafted a fine piece of cinema that treads several genre with ease, seeminly trasfusing between scenes as the story unfolds and reels us in.
My only criticism would be the (otherwise flawless) pacing of the first act. Slightly too much time is spent setting up the hook, and it is here that viewers may lose interest, thus turning a phenomental film into simply a very good one.
Sun-woo works in a hotel, but he is not your average hotel employee. He is an enforcer - he sorts out all the problems that other staff aren't able to manage. His boss, Mr Kang, is very pleased with the work he does and thinks that he can rely on Sun-woo to do him a favour. Kang has a girlfriend who is much younger than he is and he suspects that she is seeing someone other than him. He asks Sun-woo to keep an eye on her while he is away on business. Initially, Sun-woo believes that Kang is mistaken - the girl Hee-soo does have a male friend, but relations seem to be purely platonic. In fact, the more Sun-woo gets to know Hee-soo, the more he likes her. When he finds out she is cheating on Mr Kang, he is furious...but because of his feelings, decides to keep the matter from Mr Kang, provided that the young couple stop seeing each other. That is a big mistake. When Kang finds out, he forgets all the favours that Sun-woo has done for him in the past and calls for him to be executed. Can Sun-woo survive?
I've seen this film advertised, but didn't really have much of an idea of what it was about, although I presumed that because it is Korean that it was probably a horror film. Had I known that it was far more of an action flick I would probably have steered well clear. However, that would have been a great shame, because I would have missed one of the best films that I have seen in a long time.
As can be expected with an action film, there is not a great deal of dialogue. Much of the first part of the film involves shots of Sun-woo following Hee-soo in his car. If Byung-hun Lee, who plays him, had been a lesser actor, the film could have fallen flat on its face here. As it is, Lee has superb control over his facial expressions, by which he manages to express fear, anger, love and pride without any difficulty. He is also capable of some fine kicks and punches, all of which are carried out with fantastic grace.
Mun-suk, Mr Kang's other right-hand man, is played by Roe-ha Kim. He plays the blundering Mun-suk, who is jealous of Sun-woo and his hold over Mr Kang, to perfection, even managing to inject a little humour into what is a very dark film.
Kang and Hee-soo are played by Yeong-cheol Kim and Min-a Shin. Kim does a good job of playing Mr Big Boss - it is hard to imagine many western actors being able to carry off such a role, but somehow, because it is Korean, it seems completely natural that everyone should jump at the very sound of his voice. Shin is very young and quite lovely, but that is about all that can be said for her - she is supposed to be nothing more than eye candy after all.
This film is incredibly violent and very graphic. Scene after scene shows men beating the crap out of each other. There is one scene where Sun-woo is buried in a hole in the pouring rain, but somehow manages to claw his way out and survive. In other scenes, he is tied up and constantly beaten. In fact, apart from violence, there is very little else to the film. Yet, despite this, the film compulsive viewing from start to finish. Lee is compelling as Sun-woo, and although he is not really a very likeable man, I still managed to root for him from beginning to end. Now, I do not condone violence; nevertheless, there is something in the way that this film has been directed that somehow makes it acceptable.
Directed by Ji-woon Kim (who also directed A Tale of Two Sisters), there is a great deal of gray used to shoot the film. I don't mean that the film is shot in black and white - it is in colour - but a lot of the shots of Sun-woo seem to be of gray monochrome, which is very effective at adding a sense of atmosphere into the film. Colours are added into the film at the point where Hee-soo is on screen, for example, a red lamp that she admires in a shop window. Light and dark is another technique used to make the film creepier - there are a couple of scenes where both Sun-woo and Hee-soo switch a lamp on and off. This is effective in that you are never quite sure what is going to happen when the light is switched back on; but also highlights Sun-woo's feelings towards Hee-soo, which are not clearly shown in any other way.
Plot-wise, this film probably has one of the simplest storylines that I have ever known. There are no hidden twists, no side stories - it is simply the story of one man being wronged and wanting to wreck revenge. Yet I never once got bored. This film should be a lesson to Hollywood - there is no need for complicated plots that no-one can follow - all you need is a good director and good actors. I very much had a feeling that I was watching something very pure when I watched this film, despite all the blood and gore.
There are, of course, subtitles in English. Some people may be put off by subtitles. However, in this case, they are few and far between because of the general lack of dialogue. When they do come on screen, the English is excellent.
I highly recommend this film. It is not for the weak-stomached, but it really is an extraordinary action film and I think that most people will be pleasantly surprised by it. Superb.
The DVD is available from play.com for £6.99.
Running time: 120 minutes
With the amount of Asian Extreme gangster movies being made these days there are few method actors walking around that particular part of the world these days with the full set of digits, the signature punishment and betrayal ritual amputation of the Yakuza and Triad world ubiquitous in the genre, here the sadistic Korean version deployed.
These guys do this type of movie like no others and only Reservoir Dogs and Gangster Number One have got anywhere near them in recent years in the west. Korea are the new Gods of the genre and A Bittersweet Life is testament to that. If you love your assassins walking into camera in slow motion, dressed in the iconic long leather coat or nice silk suit, firing off two pistols, taking slugs in the process then this one is for you. For me this is the best foreign DVD of the year so far.
Stylish Sun Woo (Lee Beyong-heon) runs a likewise hotel on behalf of Mob Boss Mr Kang (Kim Yeong-cheoi) in downtown Seoul. If the customers play up then Kim deals with it. After a routine run in with another gang, the Boss, who is going away on a trip, wants Sun to keep an eye on his young porcelain doll girlfriend Heui-su (Shin Min-ha). If she is cheating on him then appropriate measures must be taken to keep Kangs honor. She knows that and he knows that.
After introductions and some tailing of her car, a boyfriend is discovered, things further complicated when Sun falls for her angelic and delicate looks. This is not the sort of girl you expect to be looking for a Mob Boss sugar daddy.
Sun is faced with the decision to maintain his honor and kill the pair of lovers or turn a blind eye and take his chances with his boss. Sun is a loyal employee and doesnt want to upset the bosshe certainly doesnt want to put a bullet in her beautiful face.
After the situation escalates with the rival gang and the boss returns, Kim is soon the outcast, a price on his head, fighting for his life on many fronts. But pride stops him walking away from Heui-su and vengeance is soon in the air for his unrewarded loyalty.
Although most of these movies follow the same formula they are just so watchable when done right. There really isnt anything new here but for Lee Beyong-heons startling performance brings the whole thing to life, sizzling with cool and style. Its one of those classy foreign films you would watch again when it pops up on More Four or something its that cool. Theres real menace and pathos about Sun, but bottled up with his tender side throughout he steals every scene. A very charismatic actor thats sure to impress in more movies.
This is a stunning gangster noi, shimmering with technical polish and visceral shock and eye catching visuals. With that Tarrantino verve and classic Honk Kong cinema cool you are gripped from scene one, never a moment where your mind drifts to the kettle or seeing if the big money is on in Deal or no Deal. This is one of the first foreign movies I watched all the way through for along time.
The savagery of the film hangs on a single twist of fete. One wrong move and your toast in this harsh and dangerous world. Like I said, few come out the other end with all theirs digits.
Its funny yet nasty, violent yet sweet. Only Asia Extreme cinema has mastered this distinctive style and atmosphere and if you love foreign film you would be a bloody fool not to see this cracker. What better for a Friday night than an ice cold killer in a silk suit dispatching the bad guys with those guns that never run out of bullets, reloaded by the owner doing a double somersault and flip to drop the mag in, all in slow motion... Class!
Extras on foreign DVDs dont work for me and more subtitles to wade through has me reaching for the fast-forward. We have interviews with cast and crew, the usual gauche affair with lots of polite conversation that means little.
The Premier in Cannes is also very familiar, lots of bows and delicate handshakes. They are a very sexy cast though. A nice Tartan Extreme pull-out completes the package.
Byung-Hun Lee. Highly anticipated revenge thriller from the director of A Tale of Two Sisters Kim Jee-woon. A loyal worker is devoted to his crime boss who asks him to kill his girlfriends lover. Daring to defy him, his actions lead to terrible personal consequences and set in motion a torrent of blood and mayhem. Stylish balletic violence, but a brutal masterpiece. A pulse-racing powerhouse that serves as a Korean Point Blank., John Woo-style. Unforgettable film noir for the modern day. Gangland boss Kang suspects his girlfriend of being unfaithful and sends Sunwoo, his right hand man, to sort out the problem. But when he finds the girl with another man Sunwoo does not kill them. This infuriates Kang and Sunwoo finds that he now has to fight against the gang and finally face Kang alone.