×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

A Bittersweet Life

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. With the name of writer-director Kim Jee-woon attached, film has strong chances as a cult item, with ancillary looking particularly meaty.

With:
A correction was made to these credits on May 17, 2005.
Kim Seon-woo - Lee Byeong-heon Boss Kang - Kim Yeong-cheol Heui-su - Shin Min-ah Boss Baek - Hwang Jeong-min Mun-seok - Kim Roi-ha Tae-gu - Mun Chong-hyuk Oh Mu-sung - Lee Gi-yeong Myeong-gu - Oh Dal-su Min-gil - Jin Gu Tae-woong - Kim Hae-gon

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.

A Bittersweet Life

South Korea

Production: A CJ Entertainment release and presentation, in association with CJ Investment, CITIC, Ilshin Cinema Fund, of a b.o.m. production. (International sales: CJ, Seoul.) Produced by Oh Jeong-wan, Eugene Lee. Executive producer, Park Dong-ho. Directed, written by Kim Jee-woon.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Kim Ji-yong; editor, Choi Jae-geun; music, Dalpalan, Jang Yeong-gyu; production designer, Ryu Seong-heui; costume designer, Jo Sang-gyeong; sound (Dolby Digital), Kim Gyeong-tae, Choi Tae-yeong; action choreographer, Jeong Du-hong. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing), May 14, 2005. Running time: 118 MIN.

With: A correction was made to these credits on May 17, 2005.
Kim Seon-woo - Lee Byeong-heon Boss Kang - Kim Yeong-cheol Heui-su - Shin Min-ah Boss Baek - Hwang Jeong-min Mun-seok - Kim Roi-ha Tae-gu - Mun Chong-hyuk Oh Mu-sung - Lee Gi-yeong Myeong-gu - Oh Dal-su Min-gil - Jin Gu Tae-woong - Kim Hae-gon

More Film

  • Sygeplejeskolen sc 205

    Claudia Boderke, Lars Mering Talk ‘The New Nurses,’ Gender, Class

    The inevitable comparison for SF Studios’ “The New Nurses,” at least from a Danish broadcast perspective, is “Something’s Rockin,’” another 2018 TV 2 Charlie show which was retro but forward-looking. “Something’s Rockin’” described the birth of an independent radio with culture in Denmark. Produced by SF Studios’ Senia Dremstrup (“Norskov”),  “The New Nurses” talks cleverly [...]

  • Robert Redford

    Robert Redford to Receive Honorary Cesar Award

    Legendary American actor and director Robert Redford is set to receive an honorary Cesar award, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, at the 44th annual César ceremony, which will take place on Feb. 22 in Paris. “An iconic actor, an exceptional director, a passionate producer, founder and president of Sundance, the most revered festival of independent [...]

  • Goteborg: Co-writer Hakan Lindhe on Viaplay’s

    Co-Writer Hakan Lindhe on Politics, Image in Viaplay’s ‘The Inner Circle’

    David Ehrling, Sweden’s Minister for Enterprise, who is tipped to be its next Prime Minister, spends a lot of the time in Sweden’s “The Inner Circle” not preparing his speeches, or in impassioned discussion of key political issues, but staring into the mirror, rain checking on his strong-jawed image. He spends much of his enterprise, [...]

  • 'Invisibles' Director Louis-Julien Petit On His

    'Invisibles' Director Louis-Julien Petit on his Socially-Minded Smash

    PARIS —  Far from a dumping ground, the months of January and February have become synonymous in France with the kinds of highly polished crowd-pleasing comedies that dominate the annual box-office. This year is no exception, only nestled among the likely blockbusters “Serial Bad Weddings 2” and “City Hunter” is Louis-Julien Petit’s socially minded dramedy [...]

  • "The Continent," directed by Chinese racer

    Alibaba Pictures Buys Into Chinese Director Han Han's Film Studio

    Alibaba Pictures confirmed that it has invested an undisclosed amount in Chinese celebrity blogger-turned-film director Han Han’s Shanghai Tingdong Film. Han’s upcoming “Pegasus” is one of the most anticipated films of the year in China. Alibaba Pictures, part of e-commerce giant Alibaba, is now the second-largest stakeholder in Tingdong. It has a 13.1% stake, according to Chinese [...]

  • Nicolas Philibert Talks Nursing Documentary 'Each

    Nicolas Philibert: 'A Director Driven To Make A Statement Cannot Make Cinema'

    PARIS  — For over two decades, French documentarian Nicolas Philibert has examined his country’s various public institutions with a watchmaker’s calm and anthropologist’s curiosity. In films like “To Be and To Have,” “La Maison de la Radio” and “Louvre City,” he’s taken his camera into schoolhouses, broadcast hubs and the world’s most famous museum. His [...]

  • 'Don't Come Back from the Moon'

    Film Review: 'Don't Come Back from the Moon'

    Cinematographer-turned-director Bruce Thierry Cheung offers an artful and affecting mix of harshly defined specifics and impressionistic storytelling in “Don’t Come Back from the Moon,” a cumulatively poignant drama about absent fathers and abandoned families in an economically devastated desert community. Structured more like a tone poem than a conventional narrative, it’s an elliptical memory play [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content