Sunwoo is the very trusted right hand man of underworld boss Kang. When Kang plans to goes away for three days he asks Sunwoo to keep an eye on his young girlfriend whom he suspects may be cheating on him. Sunwoo keeps an eye on the girl who begins to intrigue him, while keeping things under control at his boss’s hotel. Sunwoo is a man who likes to remain in control at all times – using whatever means are necessary. One day he makes an uncharacteristically merciful decision, the result of which changes his life completely.
It would be too easy to class A BITTERSWEET LIFE just as yet another revenge thriller coming out of Korea, too easy to compare it to Chan Wook-Park’s powerhouse ‘Vengeance’ trilogy. A BITTERSWEET LIFE does have a plot in which revenge becomes the central aspect, but the film doesn’t really fit into the same category as OLD BOY because other than the revenge theme it is quite different. A BITTERSWEET LIFE casually re-writes the ‘gangster needs to get payback’ plot with lashings of John Woo, Layer Cake, Taxi Driver - and even Tarantino - but mixes it all up to give us something quite extraordinary. To give too much of the plot away would be a crime against the film - although it’s actually fairly simple and straightforward without much sub-plot. This really works in the films favour as it always feels direct, building slowly throughout up until its amazing ending.
The cast is fantastic. Lee Byung-Hung gives another memorable performance as the straight faced Sunwoo, looking as sharp as hell in his tailor-made suits and also performing the action scenes with an unnerving energy. Kim Young-Chul is also very good as boss Kang, bringing one of those performances that only older actors can really pull off – confident in his age and experience. All other performances in the film are equally good.
Kim Jee-Woon, director of the marvellous A Tale of Two Sisters embellishes the film at every opportunity with fancy camera work and a brilliant soundtrack. Like A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, A BITTER SWEET LIFE has something of an eerie almost ghost-like quality which makes sense in the films attitude towards ‘life’ and also manages to push it up into a ‘heightened’ sense of reality. Long tracking shots and moments of silence are punctuated with violence – check out the scene where Sunwoo should be trying to fall asleep and is casually flicking the light on and off. Every shot in the film looks like it has been meticulously planned and painstakingly created. The ‘cool’ suits that gangsters wear in these films look even crisper than ever, lit as if they were in a commercial and Jee-Woon isn’t afraid to make the most of his architecture and colour schemes.
If you enjoyed the way in which A TALE OF TWO SISTERS subverted its genre, then A Bittersweet Life does the same for the gangster film. Simple on the surface but complex underneath, it’s one of those films that you will probably re-watch fairly quickly. As much a referential piece to other films as a fresh take on familiar material, it’s a film that is a genuine pleasure to watch throughout. Sometimes you can’t help smiling, because you know it’s just that good.
This disc from Tartan provides as sharp a picture as you could hope for. The picture often contrasts light and dark and the disc handles this well. The subtitles are excellent although a few lines of Russian aren’t subbed but this could be the intention of the director. Sound wise we have 2.0, 5.1 and 5.1DTS.
Extras consist of ‘Cast and Crew Interviews’ in which the cast actually ask the director the questions, a featurette on the films showing at the Cannes Film Festival, the original theatrical trailer (which gives away WAY too much of the film), Justin Bowyer filmnotes and the usual trailers for other Tartan DVD releases. This is a nice tidy disc, but with a film that’s so technically polished I suspect that there may well be another release in the future – personally I would have wanted to have the two commentary tracks and bonus features from the region 3 version.