Sunwoo is no ordinary hotel manager. He is also the ruthlessly efficient right hand man of underworld boss, Kang. But tough guy Kang has a weakness; his young girlfriend. Suspecting she is being unfaithful, Kang orders Sunwoo to take care of the problem. When Sunwoo discovers her with another man, he uncharacteristically grants them mercy. Disrespecting and humiliating his boss like this seals his fate and leaves him having to battle both his own and rival gangs in order to stay alive.
I have to admit, I was really looking forward to seeing this film. So much so that I actually put off watching it for quite some while as I was concerned that it wouldn't live up to my expectations. I figured waiting a while might let things die down in my head and allow me to enjoy the film more. But why was I looking forward to it so much? Well, simply because this film has come from the director of one of my most favourite films ever - A Tale Of Two Sisters - and I was hoping this film would be of as equally as high a standard. Alas, when I compare it to a film that I think is nigh on perfect, A Bittersweet Life does not really stand much of a chance!
That being said, I was still entertained while watching the film although I didn't feel as captivated or as engrossed in the proceedings as I could have been. There is a certain something about the film that made me feel quite distant. This could have been due to the general emotionless portrayal of the main character, and I'm sure this contributed in some way, but I think it is mainly because the film simply wasn't that good. Don't read wrongly in to that, it is still a good film, maybe slightly above average, but I didn't see anything here that elevated the film to a higher mantle.
Kim Ji-Wun has filmed A Bittersweet Life with as much style as I could have hoped for. There are many dramatic camera angles, subtle perspective shots, close ups for the emotive scenes and quick cuts where necessary - visually the film is a definite winner. Colours used are bold and contrasting highlighting the energy contained within the film. Maybe some of the colour choices have been made as a metaphore to Sunwoo's life. All we ever see him wear are a black suit and tie with a white shirt. While he looks suave and cool as hell in this attire, it could be perceived as a testament to how his life has been lead. He is the servant of the gang boss Kang, all he ever does is work for his boss and do what he is told. There is no joy or independance in his life, he just sleeps and works. Even the former of those two he doesn't managed too successfully. We see scenes where he is in his appartment trying to sleep and all he can do is lay with the light, switching it on and off, from complete darkness to light.
The great style in which the film has been shot highlights its greatest flaw - a comparitive lack of substance. Do not go into A Bittersweet Life expecting the complexity of story or the twists and turns that you were given in A Tale Of Two Sisters, as they simply are not here. The story is incredibly straight forward and plays out pretty much as you would expect it. Maybe my expectations are too high these days, but I would have much preferred something a little more thought provoking or complex than a simple revenge film. Having a lack of original story line made me feel like I was drifting in autopilot during large chunks of the film, with the bright images glazing over my eyes as my mind switched channels to what I was having for dinner, or picturing the latest photos of Keeley Hazell in Zoo magazine *drool*. Things like that should not happen when I'm watching films. I love my films and I try to give them all 100 per cent concentration, but in this case it just didn't happen.
There are efforts, though, to engage the viewer as much as possible despite the simplicity of the storyline. The main character, Sunwoo, is an emotionless man who has followed his boss for 7 years, which would account for a large portion of his adult life. Nothing phases him and it is his sudden introduction to the lives of non-gangsters that stirs something up inside him and is the cause of the events that transpire during the film. The viewer is meant to feel pity for Sunwoo, as things get out of control and he is completely excommunicated from his gang - and there is only one way that happens in the gang underworld. We see the single moment of inner turmoil that sets of the chain reaction of events, as he deliberates whether to call his boss and tell him of his girlfriend's infidelity. It has often been said that people can read emotion from someone's eyes, and in no scene is this truer than here. Sunwoo's face is emotionless throughout almost the entire film, but when holding his phone debating on whether to call or not his eyes tell the whole story. This is a testament to Lee Byung-Heon's acting, as despite not having much to show in the emotional spectrum, he proves it is not a simple job and still a lot of skill in his profession is required.
Other aspects of the film bothered me a little, the main one being the stark contrast in mood of certain scenes. A Bittersweet Life is a violent and sometimes quite gory film, yet there is a section in there that borders slapstick comedy. While trying to buys some guns Sunwoo meets two gang members who try to authenticate him as a buyer. There efforts are horrendous and the two end up bickering like a married couple. In some films this could have been mildly entertaining, but here it was completely out of place. It reminded me of so many Hong Kong films that have been slightly ruined by out of place humour. The humour redeems itself slightly in the following scenes that end up in a gun assembly race to the death, as black humour is far more suiting to the general tone of hte film.
The film's strongest aspect is its action and violence. All the fights are brutally portrayed, with no shyness for use of the red stuff where necessary and believe me it is necessary in quite a few places! Right from the opening of the film we are shown that Sunwoo is someone not to be messed with, as he easily defeats three gang members in his bar without even getting a mark or crease in his suit. As the stakes are raised, the violence levels increase. Most people end up with bullet holes in them at some point, which given the number of bullets fired isn't that surprising, but once you see some of the gangsters' aims, it is a little! I don't claim to be an expert with a gun at all, but when you see some of the misses that the shooters make, it leads you to question the credibility of the character as a kick ass gangster! Anyway, if you are squeamish, then there are times that you may wish to avert your eyes, although the goriest aspect of many scenes is the imagery of what is happening off camera as opposed to what you actually see.
Overall I was a bit disappointed with A Bittersweet Life. Undoubtedly that is partly due to my high expectations of Kim Ji-Wun after A Tale Of Two Sisters, but it is also due to there being nothing in the film to really set it apart from other similar films. It is mindless, violent entertainment which I'm definitely glad I've seen, but it is not a film that I've got much desire to go back to in a hurry.