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A Bittersweet Life
cast: Kim Young-chul, Lee Byung-hun, and Shin Min-a

director: Kim Ji-woon

114 minutes (18) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
While his boss Mr Kang (Kim Young-chul) is away for a few days, reserved and dutiful restaurant-bar enforcer-manager, Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun), is charged with monitoring the private life of Kang's girlfriend Hee-soo (Shin Min-a). At the same time, a rival gang-lord and his son try methods of intimidation to expand their influence, attempts on the business that Sun-woo coldly bats down. Given the chance to report the girl's affair to Kang, on impulse the enforcer instead warns the lovers apart, but then finds himself the shocked victim of his boss' suspicion - this while the threatening gang need to recover face...

A Bittersweet Life's (aka: Dalkomhan insaeng) narrative walks, if with some style, a difficult tightrope between philosophy and violence, reflection and recklessness. Partially redeemed by some well-choreographed action set pieces, it sits between the more meditative type of gangster film epitomised by Japanese titles like Burning Fire (Onibi, 1997), and the more common angel-of-revenge tale, of which one of the most successful versions was to be seen in Oldboy. After the critical successes of his A Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok, 1998), The Foul King (Banchikwang, 2002) and most especially A Tale Of Two Sisters (Janghwa Hongryeon, 2003), director Kim Ji-woon is flagged as a talent to watch in the emerging Korean cinema. The subtleties of that last film created a disturbing cocktail of suspenseful horror, one in which the audience was often left guessing as to the exact relationship between major characters. In this new film, although there remains a central question of the heart of the narrative that's just as subtle - the exact emotional attachment between Sun-woo and Hee-soo, other relationships are far more stereotypical and less imaginative: the tough gang boss, bound by codes of honour for instance, or his femme fatale girlfriend, who throws such a dangerous attraction over her minder; the threatening criminal rivals, the swaggering henchman, and so on. Kim Ji-woon's film works best when one accepts these thriller standards as given and instead concentrates on its more interesting aspects, notably the exact mental state of the hero, his bloody transformation from a man who starts out as a loyal employee who pours out his master's drink, to end as a blood soaked avenger, holding a gun at his head.

Sun-woo is an interesting character; a reliable man who has served his boss without complaint for seven years. His attraction for Boss Kang is that he has apparently never been in love, or even had a girlfriend, an un-distracted state of affairs that allows him to give his role full dedication. He does his job, as evidenced by the opening scenes, very efficiently and reliably. Like his boss, he is an honourable man, and one who knows how "One mistake can undo the work of many years." In the light of this daunting recognition, the question the film ultimately poses is whether it is wise to restrict an emotional life around blind loyalty, or whether the heart and mind can ultimately make something else out of that which seems almost mechanical. As Sun-woo realises, ultimately one cannot just 'erase memories' or, come to that, the start of real human feeling in the same way that can overcome an opponent, even though such concerns can be hidden behind fierce notions of honour.

When Sun-woo is given the three-day job of monitoring his boss' girlfriend, of whom it is suspected she is having an affair with a younger man, the coming drama seems obvious. Most films would promptly have minder and moll strike sparks off each other before falling into a predictable game of dangerous sexual intrigue. Kim Ji-woon's approach is more interesting: following his boss' strict instructions, Sun-woo finds that he is still given a choice of whether to report any liaison or to handle it "in his own way" - a fatal phrasing which allows him, for whatever reason, to exercise some humanity, while giving the director a chance to suggest his awakening interest in the girl. But any connection between the two is largely one sided and suggested without passion. Instead Sun-Woo is permitted something which is best described as a moment of spiritual affirmation, as he listens to the girl play the cello. Elsewhere, much is suggested by look and emphasis, until the audience is almost reading into innocuous events a love story of its own devising (in fact it is not until Hee-soo opens her present at the end that anything concrete is really confirmed between them and then obliquely).

Rigorous in following instructions in the case of the girlfriend, and unbending when facing down the threatened predations of gangland rivals, Sun-woo is a proud individual. Almost to the point of recklessness in fact, as his refusal to say "three little words" to avoid a crisis shows. Such refusal can be equated to his lack of verbalisation in the romantic sphere too, when he cannot admit to his boss the likelihood of human interest outside of duty, even at pain of death. Whether or not this is just because he does not know himself is central to our understanding of events, and hard to decide. My own feeling is that, like a novice gazing at trees caught by the wind (a key image repeated in the film), he has not yet learnt to project his emotions outwards to interpret the world. During a press conference, after the film's premiere, the director apparently emphasised the way lack of communication is at the heart of his film. To be more precise, one might restate this lack as being of missing empathy. And in a world where either minor or major misunderstandings easily happen, its absence can lead to disaster.

But this is a bittersweet world Kim Ji-woon shows us after all, where different experiences mix. Besides the sadness and tragedy there's room here for some comedic moments, notably in the scenes where Sun-woo attempts to buy guns from some incompetent gangsters and even, slyly, in some of the shootouts where the tough guy, being presumably unused to working with guns rather than fists, proves a less than accurate shot. The unresolved questions central to the main character (although arguably such ambiguity is one of the film's strengths), the temporary change in tone to black humour after Sun-woo's initial downfall from grace, as well as the stereotypical nature of various character elements do not gel together completely. Out of those surrounding the enforcer only Boss Kang has similar weight and internal life, although with fewer scenes to express his hesitations, while his girlfriend, largely oblivious to any effect she is having in any case, turns quickly into a symbol of exquisite longing. Two or three powerhouse action sequences - a standout being Sun-woo's escape - redeem matters considerably, but one yearns for more imagination amongst incidentals, echoing a theme which relates the implied vacuum in a hard man's heart to his empty lifestyle. Ultimately, like a man shadow boxing in a window, the question of why he does it, and for whom, remains a mystery.

Despite these misgivings, A Bittersweet Life is well worth catching as an example of the continuing invention of Korean genre cinema, and it is also fair to report that the film has received a generally warmer welcome, at least amongst fans, than I have given it here. With rich colour and excellent set design it is also very easy on the eye, and never proves less than entertaining. Those who enjoyed the director's previous outings will not hesitate, while the casual viewer who appreciates something a little different in the action genre should see it too.
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