Directed by Kim Jee-woon; Written by Kim Jee-woon
Meet the sad gangsters of Seoul.
Films that know how to mix and match their moments of thrill and introspection, romance and drama, and cruelty and comedy succeed in wrong footing you for the duration of its runtime, leaving you exposed to surprises along the way. By the end, you feel you’ve just seen something a little different and very memorable. A great example of this is Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963). A not-so-great example is A Bittersweet Life, where we learn even the criminal underworld is not immune to angst and interoffice politics.
Our man in the middle is Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee), hotel manager and high-level mob enforcer. He’s taciturn, capable, and above all professional, pointing out hospitality sloppiness and beating up thugs with the same ruthless grace. He’s asked by his boss to shadow a love interest of his to see whether she has another sweetheart, and if so, take care of it.
So shortly after watching him delivering a ballet choreography of kicks and punches, we see him trail a happy couple through the night, gliding along highways and watching from afar in crowded clubs as melancholy piano keys play. Something other than professional detachment can be seen in Sun-woo’s eyes – is it envy? Could it even be pining? Sun-woo himself doesn’t seem to know, but confronted with the contented lives of others, he hesitates to do what’s asked of him, triggering an angry boss and an opportunity for pugnacious colleagues to climb a rung.
Violence escalates on the back of adrenaline-rushed egos and no one’s afraid to punch downwards, leading to a bevy of beautifully choreographed fight scenes involving fists, guns, torches and cars, like some mixed media martial arts exhibition. A Bittersweet Life really sings here, and Byung-hun Lee shows us a character like Sun-woo is better expressed through fisticuffs than words.
Yet, at the root all this machismo posturing are small, tender feelings: jealousy at the lives of others, loneliness from never feeling a part, and anger at the same. This might suggest a potent mix of honest motivation and explosive consequences, but Sun-woo’s roiled emotions early on are quickly forgotten in favor of the mayhem, leading one to feel it was an accidental inclusion rather than a premeditated characterization. That feeling is later reinforced when he tries to inject some farcical comedy into proceedings with a scene involving bickering henchmen and a slapstick car crash. In short, it juts out in places that it shouldn’t.
If sleek interiors, sharp suits and searing fistfights are your bag, A Bittersweet Life may well be worth your time, but you’ll have to endure some misguided romance and comedy along the way.