A BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005)
A stylish revenge thriller about honour and tragedy featuring a pulsating lead performance from Lee Byung-hun
“You can do a hundred things right, but it takes only one mistake to destroy everything,” warns crime boss, Mr. Kang.
In the wake of this chilling warning, a seemingly minor lapse in ruthlessness sends Kang’s favourite enforcer down a dangerous path of violence and revenge.
Director Kim Jee-woon has a varied career of playing with genre devices across a range of film types and he encapsulates that stylish crime caper perfectly here.
Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun – Joint Security Area, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, I Saw the Devil) is a hushed but brutal enforcer at a hotel owned by Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol).
Kang tells Sun-woo that he has a new girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah), but suspects she might be seeing another man. When Kang goes on a business trip, he asks Sun-woo to look after his girlfriend, but also to kill any additional love interest she is discovered to be harbouring.
Sun-woo dutifully cares for her, including taking Hee-soo to a music recital, but he finds himself becoming enhanced by the girl. However, when Sun-woo discovers Hee-soo at home with another man he is caught between loyalty to his savage boss and his new affection for Hee-soo.
It is on this decision quagmire that sends Sun-woo onto the opposing side of Kang and creates a spiralling, violent face-off.
While the film uses many of the genre devices you would expect from a Korean revenge film, it also finds plenty of opportunity to stretch its legs into more interesting and unexpected territories.
Director Kim even finds a way to make the violence poetic and deep, wrapping it up within a tragic tale of escalation and fury. He is then able to change the pace from the bloodstained action to the film’s more tender moments and do so with no jarring.
Kim can combine Shakespearean tragedy with highly stylised, modern action violence. That is exactly as difficult as it sounds.
This is partly achieved by the gentler first act, which even starts with a Buddhist parable, and then builds layer-by-layer before the onslaught on the senses that follows through the rest of the film.
A detractor may claim Kim relies on too many action conventions, but so much of this film – the action, the fight scenes, the cinematography, the script, the soundtrack and the performances – are so effective, this does not matter.
Most of this is achieved through the lead performance of Lee Byung-hun who has no lower setting – he throws himself into every role as if it is his, rather than the character’s, life which is at stake. Lee’s Sun-woo has a quietness and coolness, but also a hardened sense of morality.
Kim’s fourth film – after The Quiet Family, The Foul King and A Tale of Two Sisters – was the one that established him as one of Korea’s finest and most diverse modern filmmakers.