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2 reviews, 5 user ratings

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Bittersweet Life, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Pure unfiltered ass-kicking."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "A Bittersweet Life" is big, hard-boiled action just like John Woo used to make. Kim Ji-woon isn't necessarily the guy I'd expect to see make this sort of film, but he proves darn good at it, delivering a shot of high-testosterone adrenaline from start to finish.

Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is an enforcer for "President" Kang (Kim Young-Chul), and he's good at it: When called down to handle a situation in a restaurant's back room, the staff jumps at his glance and the hoods are quickly dispatched. It's a situation created by Kang's lieutenant, Mun-suk (Kim Roe-ha), who lacks Sun-woo's icy professionalism and is quickly falling out of favor with Kang, at least relative to Sun-woo. While away in Shanghai on business, Kang gives Sun-woo an extra job - watch his young girlfriend Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), make sure she's not cheating on him, and if she is, kill her and her lover. When the time comes, though, Sun-woo has a twinge of conscience, earning him Kang's wrath. It doesn't help that Sun-woo's cocky attitude has offended another underworld kingpin, "President" Baek (Hwang Jeong-min), who's sending his own killer to take Sun-woo out.

Some guys just have movie star written all over them, and Lee Byung-hun is one of them. He's a good-looking guy who fills out a suit nicely, of course, but he's got the knack for carrying himself with authority and when he bursts into action, delivering his punches and kicks with savage authority. He earns his character's tendency to be a prick by projecting that much more cool than everyone else on screen, and similarly can sell the amount of punishment his body takes while other characters go down. He's good when the veneer of cool is peeled back a little, too, whether it be feeling something when he's around Hee-soo, betrayed and beaten later in the movie, or aware that he might, just this once, be in a situation he can't escape. If he looks familiar to North American audiences, it's probably from a couple of Park Chan-wook pictures: He played the South Korean NCO who made friends with his enemies in JSA, and was the film director victimized in Park's segment of Three...Extremes, "Cut".

Here, though, he's working with Kim Ji-woon, whose previous film was the stylish horror picture A Tale of Two Sisters. He retains his knack for creating dazzling visuals, from the slick interior of the restaurant Kang and company use as a front to the sleazy mess where some lowlife arms dealers do their work. Check out the difference between where Sun-woo and Hee-soo live: The girl's home is cluttered with colorful objects, particularly lamps, whereas Sun-woo sleeps on a couch in a spartan apartment only illuminated by a single lamp whose simple push-button switch rests in his hand while he sleeps. He and cinematographer Kim Ji-yong always seem to have the right angle and distance during the action scenes - far enough back to give us a clear view of what's going on and close enough to rub our noses in the destructive violence. And the man bursting out of a shallow grave has been done before, but seldom this well. They also know how to flatter Ms. Shin, although she doesn't need a lot of help in that department.

Kim's script is a blast, filled with bloody action, memorable supporting characters, and philosophical monologues that don't outlast their welcome. It refrains from giving us an obvious and unlikely romance, so I'll forgive it if it maybe piles a little too much gangland intrigue on us without much explanation. It's also fiercely funny without undercutting the tension or resorting to lame one-liners: A scene where two characters have their guns disassembled when they realize that they really need their weapons in one piece before the other guy has his together got a chuckle even while kick-starting the pulse, and the line from one of the guys digging a second, deeper grave as he sees Sun-woo escape brought the house down. Kim keeps this movie going relentlessly forward, making its two hours pass in a breeze.

As good as Lee Byung-hun is, the rest of the cast hold their own with him. Shin Min-a is a young beauty who invests her character with such spontaneity and warmth that the audience easily believes that she throws these killers' priorities all out of whack. Kim Roe-ha is great contrast to the lead, making Mun-suk as talkative and flamboyant as Sun-woo is cold and reserved. Kim Young-chul and Hwang Jeong-min are both prideful types as mob bosses whose feud doesn't quite go away as the focus on stomping out Sun-woo, and Lee Gi-yeong has a nice supporting role as a killer who may be Sun-woo's equal, if only because he's not burdened with Sun-woo's arrogance.

Many bullets are shot and punches are thrown over the course of this movie, in a way that reminded me that I haven't really seen a flat-out action movie this good in a while. Kim Ji-woon and Lee Byung-hun are the best pairing of actor and director for this kind of film since John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, and definitely worth checking out.

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originally posted: 07/09/06 01:50:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/20/07 Muted Orbz I wouldn't compare this to Oldboy. Luckily Korea has many talented directors. 5 stars
3/09/06 Mushuga A thousand and one times better than "Oldboy" 5 stars
1/19/06 jt A great film. Sad but beautiful. The leading actor is a rare talent. 5 stars
11/09/05 white siberian husky awesomely cool film, watch it! No regrets.. 5 stars
8/02/05 Brett Olson Contemporary film noir... as good as it gets. 5 stars
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Directed by
  Ji-woon Kim

Written by
  Ji-woon Kim

  Lee Byung-hun
  Shin Mina
  Kim Young-chul
  Whang Jung-min
  Kim Roi-ha
  Moon Ching-hyuk

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