Director Kim Jee-woon gave us a black comedy with The Quiet Family and a psychological horror film with A Tale of Two Sisters.
Now he is back with A Bittersweet Life a Korean style action noir film.
Sun-woo (Lee Byung-heon) is the manager of La Dolce Vita, an upscale bar. He serves his gangster boss Kang (Kim Young-cheol) with unflinching loyalty and has done so for seven years.
Recognizing that loyalty (and taking it for granted) his boss asks him to check on his mistress Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah), as he suspects her of cheating on him. Boss Kang tells him, that if she is indeed cheating, Sun-woo should dispose of her and her lover.
Till now Sun-woo has never been in love, he does not show feelings, and he is the epitome of cool. Exactly what changes him, arent made clear to us until the end of the film. Sun-woo starts to feel, and that changes his attitude towards his own life and his boss. What changes him seems like a small thing, but to Sun-woo it changes everything, and Hee-soo is instrumental in that change.
All hell breaks lose, blood and violence fills the screen with no holds barred. I have recently accused Korean films of being overly sentimental here we see the complete opposite. To give the viewer a break, some small (quite small) moments of black humor is thrown in. In spite of these touches it soon becomes crystal clear, that you should not expect a happy ending. Grim, bloody and inevitable the only ending and not a happy one.
In traditional Korean society family is more important than the individual. This may be slowly changing, but is still present to a much stronger extent than in western society. When you take a job, you also become a member of a family. The boss must be obeyed without question. If you try to go up against that, you are in deep trouble.
When Sun-woo disobeys his boss, it has much greater significance, than it would have in the west. In the west it would probably get you fired in Korea it is a deep insult that goes against the grain and must be punished severely. If you understand that fact, you will have a greater understanding of why Korean people act as they do not only in this film, but in most any Korean film.
So Sun-woo knows almost from the beginning that he is in deep shit, but his sense of betrayal is so great, that he has to act as he does anyway.
Like I said earlier the end is inevitable. In this kind of film it does not feel tragic after all Sun-woo himself is a cold-blooded killer. But he does keep his cool throughout, and the film is very visually stylish with lots of noir like shots of Seoul by night and of course the inevitable scenes of rain pouring down.
Kim Jee-Woon has given us an entertaining and cool action film with lots of artistic touches that takes it to a higher level than mere action. To me it is levels above for instance Another Public Enemy, which sold three times as many tickets (go figure).
Of Kim Jee-Woons films I still prefer A Tale of Two Sisters, though. That may be because of the innate shallowness of the Sun-woo character in A Bittersweet Life. Being extremely cool is fine, but it does not automatically make you likable.
Even if it is intentional you dont care too much about what happens to a character, which has never shown any feelings (and does not now until the very last moment) and is a cold-blooded killer as well. But of course you can use that argument about most action films with a criminal protagonist.
Anyway, if you like lots of action, huge amounts of blood and cool stylistic pictures you will be well entertained during the two hours of A Bittersweet Life.