Would you look here… A brutal Korean Revenge Thriller. Go figure. Now I realize that ‘A Bittersweet Life’ was made in 2005 and I just saw it yesterday, but still. That being said I guess I’d rather watch a Korean Revenge Thriller as opposed to a Korean Comedy. ‘Sex is Zero’ anybody? Or how to turn a botched abortion into something funny. Oh those damn South Koreans. Nonetheless if we know that Korean filmmakers can do one thing it is this, and thus we have a Korean Revenge Thriller directed by a master visualist in Ji-Woo Kim and starring a cat in Byung-hung Lee who knows how to kick a little ass. To the surprise of no one, it’s a damn fine bloody movie.
Sun-woo (Lee) enjoys the beautiful things in life. At least he would like to. A mob enforcer masquerading as a hotel security manager, far too often Sun-woo is called upon to beat the hell out of somebody, and as it so happens he is very good at this. His boss Mr. Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim) cherishes and trusts his number one employee but he does warn him that you can do a thousand things correctly, but that one thing you do wrong can bring you to destruction. Can you say ‘foreshadowing’?
So Mr. Kang is slated to head out of town for a couple of days but he has some concerns. Kang has fallen in love with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter and he thinks she might be cheating on him. He gives Sun-woo the task of keeping an eye on her, and if Sun-woo learns that Kang’s suspicions are correct, eliminate her and her lover without prejudice. Then call him to let him know what he has done.
Easy enough. But then Sun-woo meets Hee-soo (Min-a Shin). This woman is a representation of everything that he is not, but would like to be or would like to possess. She is soft, gifted and artistic. Everything she does and every move she makes is done with a sense a grace and style. Watching her has become less of a job and has turned into something else, something almost transcendent for this man. No… he doesn’t cross that line… but when he discovers that Kang’s suspicions are correct and he doesn’t execute his orders… he has unfortunately crossed THE line.
Now here’s the thing. It seemed to me that Kang’s punishment for Sun-woo was a bit extreme, and Kang kind of even admits as much, but Sun-woo did disobey a direct order. Before Kang has his men send Sun-woo to his final destination, he needs to know one simple question… ‘Was it the girl?’ The answer is yes, clearly, but Sun-woo for whatever reason can’t bring himself to admit to it. Now it’s dying time, but Sun-woo is the type of guy that doesn’t die so easily. Sun-woo is a badass. I have also learned by watching this movie that getting a gun in South Korea is exponentially more difficult than getting a gun in the United States. Sun-woo has a gun. A few actually. A lot of the people he plans to kill only have knives. That’s inequitable. Try not to get to terribly attached to anybody in this movie.
A little while after I saw ‘A Bittersweet Life’ I was privileged to see Director Lee’s latest revenge thriller, also starring Byung-hung Lee, in ‘I Saw the Devil’. While ‘I Saw the Devil’ was probably the superior movie, ‘A Bittersweet Life’ had something that ‘I Saw the Devil’ was completely devoid of, and that was humor. This movie wasn’t a comedy by any stretch of the imagination… good Lord no… but there were quite a few deftly done comedic touches in this film which certainly lightened the overall tone. Sure, some of this comedy came smack dab in the middle of scenes of intense, overreaching violence… but what are you gonna do?
Another thing that’s pretty much a guarantee if you are going to watch a Ji-woo Kim movie is that you are going to receive one stylish visual experience. I’ve said this before but generally speaking Korean movies sure are pretty to look at and there aren’t a lot of directors who handle light and scenery as well as Kim does. And while Byung-hung Lee probably gets most of his gigs because he looks good in a suit and is in possession of some remarkable athletic ability, he’s also an action guy who can act when called upon and that’s appreciated.
Style probably overrides substance in this one with a lot of the drama in this movie left to the imagination, such as the non-existent relationship between Sun-woo and Hee-soo, or even Mr. Kang’s relationship with Hee-soo for that matter. And we also had to come to grips with the fact, at least in our opinion, that Sun-woo didn’t do anything all that bad that warranted my man to be strung up, sliced, buried alive, stabbed, shot, burned again and sledge hammered.
Nonetheless, ‘A Bittersweet Life’ is a Korean Revenge Movie that is heavy on action, heavy on style, bridges this action and style with the clever use of some humorous bits and is mighty entertaining in the process. However don’t expect to see any of that if you plan to watch Kim’s ‘I Saw the Devil’.