An ice-cool enforcer pays a horrendous penalty for a moment of emotional weakness in “A Bittersweet Life,” a tour de force of noirish style and Korean ultra-violence that will have genre fans nailed to their seats. More sensitive souls, and anyone looking for deep psychological insights, may head for the exit well before the end, though on its own level pic does sport sufficient emotional motivation to justify the carnage. With the name of writer-director Kim Jee-woon (“The Quiet Family,” “A Tale of Two Sisters”) attached, film has strong chances as a cult item, with ancillary looking particularly meaty.
Even by Korean standards of movie brutality, “Bittersweet Life” raises the bar to a new level, way above pics like “Old Boy” or “Nowhere to Hide.” But the violence, apart from having an unreal, manga-like quality, is part and parcel of the film’s overall stylization, from the use of chilly, David Lynch-like colors (gangreney greens, sanguinary magentas, stygian blacks) to the whole generic catalog of rain and chiaroscuro lighting.
Story spirals out from a single event, when Seon-woo (Lee Byeong-heon, the young soldier in “JSA”) comes to sort out a problem in the noirish hotel he manages. Three gangsters are drunk and disorderly in a private room, and when they refuse to leave Seon-woo whips ass in a spectacular display of martial arts. The men’s boss, Baek (Hwang Jeong-min), demands payback, but Seon-woo doesn’t seem bothered.
In reality, Seon-woo is a cold-blooded enforcer for gang leader Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol), who looks upon him as a rising star in the org but warns him that careers can often be irreparably damaged by a single mistake. Due to go away on a short business trip, Kang asks Seon-woo to keep an eye on his latest squeeze, Huei-su (Kim Min-ah), whom he suspects is seeing someone else. If true, Kang tells Seon-woo to fix the problem.
Seon-woo spends time with Heui-su, and falls for the gentle young cellist’s charms. When he catches her canoodling with another guy, Seon-woo hesitates at the last moment from killing him and offers to hush the affair up if the guy disappears forever. It’s a decision that changes his life.
Baek, meanwhile, recruits the leader of another gang, Oh Mu-sung (Lee Gi-yeong), to help out in getting Seon-woo to apologize. In one long night of appalling violence, Seon-woo is beaten to a pulp, strung up in a warehouse, has his hand smashed with a wrench, and is buried alive in a muddy grave. And that’s just for starters.
As Seon-woo crawls out of the grave, he finds Kang has discovered his subterfuge over Heui-su’s affair. But as Kang’s men get ready to bury him alive again, Seon-woo manages to escape in the pic’s action highlight, a superbly staged, one-against-many fight in a tumbledown warehouse, with firebrands as weapons.
Now it’s Seon-woo who wants payback, and at the 70-minute mark the movie radically changes tack with the introduction of guns. After a semi-comic interlude in which Seon-woo does business with a Russian supplier, the stage is set for ballistic bedlam.
Lee Byeong-cheol’s tightly coiled performance as the arrogant, hair-trigger Seon-woo, who’ll go all the way to defend a moment of beauty in his loveless life, is the key to the whole movie, recalling Hong Kong thesp Jimmy Wang Yu’s lonesome, masochistic heroes in swordplay pics of the late ’60s and early ’70s. On-screen almost the whole time, Lee holds his own against a raft of strong character actors, including Kim Yeong-cheol as the avuncular but ruthless Kang, Lee Gi-yeong as the psychopathic Oh, and Jin Gu as cocky underling Min-gil.
By the final act, the film has long left the realm of reality as Seon-woo battles on despite crippling wounds. But this won’t bother fans of Far East manga and swordplay movies.
Tech and artistic package is immaculate, with mood piled on by every department. Martial arts choreography by Korean maestro Jeong Du-hong is skillfully edited by Choi Jae-geun, with music and sound effects thwacking home the action.