In my recent Busan Haps feature, ’10 Korean Films You Should See’, I gave readers a rundown of entertaining flicks that ranged from the obscure hidden gems to the popular cultural sensations that practically everyone has seen, or at least heard of.
While the list was presented in no particular order, I did put what I consider to be the very best in the “top three”. Sitting proudly in my #2 spot is Kim Ji-woon’s A Bittersweet Life, which is actually one of the more obscure crime dramas to come out of the ROK. Despite starring Korea’s dashing leading man (and now international crossover star) Lee Byung-hun, I’ve found that even the most avid of Korean cinephiles have somehow managed to miss this remarkable masterpiece. So, five years after its initial release in theaters, I thought I’d provide a more thorough analysis of one of my all-time favorite films. Here’s hoping we see a boost in DVD-room rentals for this one! (mild spoilers ahead)
A Bittersweet Life focuses on Kim Sun-woo, played by Lee Byung-hun, the skillfully efficient right-hand of a notorious mob-like boss. We learn that he has devoted seven years of his life to serving this man with unquestioned loyalty. The films title is personified in the opening scene which sees Sun-woo enjoying a delectable dessert when he is interrupted and summoned to "take care of a problem downstairs". He savours a few more bites, then proceeds to give us a proper introduction to the true nature of his profession.
Kim Sun-Woo's world is turned on its ear, however, when his boss makes a special request of him over dinner. His boss has been seeing Hee-soo (played by the elegantly beautiful Shin Min-a) a young woman whom he claims to care a great deal for, but suspects she may be seeing another man closer to her age. He tells Sun-Woo that he will be out of town for three days, and during this time, Sun-woo is charged with the task of discovering whether or not she is in fact, cheating. If she is, he's to deal with her and her lover with little recourse, no questions asked. This of course proves to be easier said than done.Director Kim Ji-woon makes some extremely beautiful choices, stylistically speaking. His camera work is something to revel in; his tracking shots are meticulously planned and gracefully executed. The sets are fantastic to look at, such as La Dolce Vita, the hotel club which Sun-woo supervises.
The film treats us to work from Korea's most famous production designer, Ryu Seong-hee whose credits also include Oldboy and Memories of Murder. The color palette is wonderfully organized in Kim Ji-woon’s trending preferences to deep purples, mauve, olive, and red. As the film progresses, these colors become a recurring theme and the cinematography takes on a life of its own. Backdrops such as Hee-soo’s apartment are visually arresting, boasting so much character in the minute details, you’d swear it was just aching to tell a story in itself. This is the best looking Korean film I have ever seen. The action sequences are top-notch, bringing cold brutality to every skirmish, giving Sun-woo a wistful pathos as he faces down each violent situation. The films highlight sequence pits Sun-Woo against an entire crew in a fight for his very life, but not before seeing the character viciously broken down while he arrives at the startling realization that he has been betrayed.
When the film opens, Sun-woo narrates with:
"On a clear spring day, a disciple looked at some branches blowing in the wind, and asked, 'Master, is it the branches that are moving, or the wind?' Without even looking to where his pupil was pointing, the teacher smiled and said, 'That which moves is neither the branches nor the wind, it is your heart and mind.'"
Sun-woo is aware of the world around him and the tasks that his boss charges him with, but he opens neither his heart nor his mind. That is, not until he meets Hee-soo. This is an integral moment in Sun-woo’s life, and while the obvious answer could be that he has fallen in love, we get a sense that it is something far more delicate and poignant. His connection to her is what unravels the only world he's ever known for seven years. He sees her as the embodiment of his dreams, all that could have been, and I'm not talking about the whole "wife, kids and the house with the white fence" ordeal. She's something normal and wonderful in a world that just isn't. The feelings are not mutual, she does not love him and we know that she never will, but despite this, his sudden emotional kick-start prompts him to make a choice that he feels is harmless, and would be insignificant in the face of seven years of loyal service.
It's only fitting that we get to hear a second narration from Sun-woo:
One late autumn night, the disciple awoke crying. So the master asked the disciple, "Did you have a nightmare?"
"Did you have a sad dream?"
"No", said the disciple. "I had a sweet dream."
"Then why are you crying so sadly?"The disciple wiped his tears away and quietly answered,
"Because the dream I had can’t come true."
The ending of the film is completely satisfying, comprised of a series of images that linger in the mind. The closing shot is of Sun-woo standing at a window in the club, shadowboxing as the camera pans away to the left and loses focus on the city lights, as we're left to ponder the chronology of this seemingly happy moment in his life. While it would be tempting to consider Sun-woo the tragic hero, we know that there's nothing tragic about a man who is set free by realizing that it is possible to dream of something more. The tragedy comes, unfortunately, when Sun-woo is hit with the harsh reality that his reach far exceeds his grasp.