Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Bittersweet Life

Korea doesn’t fuck around. And they prove it with this existential look at the Korean mob in A Bittersweet Life.

Lee Byung-hun plays Kim Sun-woo. He is a handsome young man. Thin and unassuming, he resembles as Korean Conan O’Brien, if Conan O’Brien wasn’t eight feet tall. He also happens to be the baddest kid on the block. We get a glimpse of just how badass this guy is right out of the gate. Some local thugs, up to no good, have overstayed their welcome at the luxury hotel/club/brothel/HQ for all manner of nefarious dealings where Sun-woo is an ‘enforcer.’ He is summoned to take care of the problem. Calmly walking through the hotel, even the straight employees react to him with fear and reverence. He then proceeds to take down a roomful of mob heavies without so much as ruining the crease of his suit.
He is quiet, respectful, loyal to his ‘family,’ and most importantly, he takes care of business.
Trouble arises when President Kang (Kim Young-cheol) asks a personal favor of Sun-woo. He wants his trusted soldier to keep an eye on his nubile, twenty-something girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah). See, the boss suspects she’s fucking around on him behind his back. Sun-woo is supposed to watch her, and if she is in fact two timing, he is to do what he does best, TCOB.
Hee-soo is a sexy cellist with ridiculously cute, elf-like ears, who is in fact fucking around behind the old man’s back. Sun-woo discovers this, but after following her for a couple days, he’s smitten, and in a rare moment of conscience, he decides to neither kill the young lovers, nor inform his boss.
That’s when shit really starts to go downhill for our boy Sun-woo. There is some double dealing, betrayals of trust, he gets sold out by a joker named Moon-suk (Kim Roi-ha), and winds up on the wrong end of being buried alive.
Do you want to know just how badass my good friend Kim Sun-woo is? At this point in the film we’ve already seen him run a car full of jokers off the road in the middle of a freeway bridge, kick the living shit out of the lot of them, then throw the keys into the water. That’s pretty harsh, that guy probably had his house keys on that ring. He better hope his girlfriend still has that spare he left at her place, if not, he’s screwed.
Sun-woo is the kind of guy who will hit another dude with a lamp if he needs to. But he’ll probably feel bad and buy you a new lamp afterwards.
That’s tough, but now watch him, with a mangled left hand, dig his way out of a grave in the middle of a rainstorm. Captured again by his tormenters, Sun-woo then stabs Moon-suk in the face with a cell phone battery, and what follows is one of the best fight scenes in recent cinema. The weapon du jour? Flaming boards. And yes, some of the aforementioned flaming boards do have nails in them. I’ll leave the rest to your more than capable imaginations.
From here on out, A Bittersweet Life becomes a good old fashioned revenge story. “Reasons don’t matter anymore.” Sun-woo wants answers, and the only place he will find them is in vengeance.
There is action in this movie, but not action in the Bay/Bruckheimer kind of way. There are actual action sequences. Choreographed action, not just quick cuts, explosions in every frame, and slo-mo dives with a pistol in each hand.
The plot is deliberate and smooth. Director Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) uses a lot of long takes that encompass the lingering shadows and modern architecture available in Seoul. The primary score is a haunting (yes, I said haunting—the girl is a freaking cellist, of course it’s haunting) mix of a lone piano overlaid by a mournful arrangement of strings. Brutal violence lurks just below this subdued, placid surface, and is all the more jarring when it erupts. Like I said, Sun-woo is the type of dude who will hit another dude with a lamp when the situation dicates.
A Bittersweet Life has one of the grimmest endings since The Great Silence (with a name like A Bittersweet Life you weren’t exactly expecting sunshine and lollipops, were you?). There is too much pride involved, everyone knows they are moving towards their ultimate destruction, but at the same time, they are all aware they have no other choice. They know no other way.
In the end, as he sits bleeding out on the stairs, the only conclusion Sun-woo can come to is “this is too harsh.” He has seen a vision of happiness, a life with Hee-soo, a possibility he knows can never happen.

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