“One fine spring day a disciple looked at some branches blowing in the wind. He asked his master, ‘Master, are the branches moving or is it the wind?’ Not even glancing to where his pupil was pointing the master smiled and said, ‘That which moves is neither the branches nor the wind. It’s your heart and mind.”
This opening koan is accompanied by a beautiful slow-motion shot of long, grass-like tree branches floating on the wind. This image seems to represent an ideal of some sort (one open to interpretation), but regardless it’s enchanting and completely anathema to the ruin to follow. It will be recapitulated at story’s end.
Lee Byung-hun plays the stoic gangster Kim Sun-woo, a man on his way up in the syndicate until he makes a single, fatal mistake. This is presaged by the head of the organization who says, “You can do 100 things right but one mistake can destroy everything.” The consequences are tragic, but his error is one of compassion. The boss suspects his girlfriend of seeing another man so he charges our protagonist with keeping an eye on her while he’s away. Kim Sun-woo seems to feel insulted by the task, which is essentially babysitting this younger woman—he is after all an “enforcer” in the organization. His indifference is quickly overtaken by Hee-soo as he comes to know her: small talk passing through a museum, glances over a meal, watching her play cello in recital. When he discovers her with another man at her home, and after beating the hell out of him, he is faced with a dilemma. Instead of calling the boss immediately (who would then dispose of this boyfriend and probably Hee-soo as well) Sun-woo decides to send him away and make them promise to never see each other again. He not only risks his reputation but his very life for her sake, and inevitably the boss learns of the deception.
Sun-woo is a man who tends to talk only when necessary, when what he has to say is meaningful. As a result he never reveals himself explicitly. It is up to Lee Byung-hun to use body language, particularly his face, to fulfill this character (and director Kim Ji-woon to hint at it through composition). He’s also quite the insouciant character. He at once coolly embarrasses a cohort while also flippantly dismissing an important figure in the underworld. This nonchalance, which is rather typical of action movie heroes come to think of it, endears us to the character. But we’re given the suggestion that this strong reason for liking him may also be the source of his downfall. And his hubris will come back to him in a devastating way.
The image I chose for this film captures a certain mood that may only be understood after watching it, but it does not capture the essence of A Bittersweet Life, which at its core is a very violent film falling neatly within the gangster/crime and action genres. We see Sun-woo utilize his taekwon-do skills to pummel several men as the opening credits roll, in fact. The first act on the whole has comparatively little of this; instead it develops character, nearly verges on romance and creates a kind of atmosphere of pathos that endears us to Sun-woo and prepares us for a bloody second act (and third). Once Sun-woo’s deception is found out, however, Kim Ji-woon kicks it in to high gear as sweet longing gives way to bitter revenge fantasy.
A Bittersweet Life has been accused of favoring style over substance, indulging in cliché and even borrowing from Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller Oldboy. Considered threadbare the plot is nothing new and it is certainly predictable at times, but I think there’s much more happening here to largely compensate these flaws. Kim Ji-yong’s cinematography is often mesmerizing and very much imbued with a personal style. The scene of Hee-soo in recital comes to mind. She is plying her cello confidently and when her section is at rest she looks up to catch Sun-woos eyes. But she also captures ours for she is looking directly in to the camera, a smile creeping in to her face. And the explosive action sequences, in particular, are choreographed and shot in an original, even dynamic, way and the very fact of their explosiveness makes what could be a dull viewing experience a hell of a ride.
Sun-woo is first attacked in his home (which is set up in a very clever way that should remain a surprise), taken to a warehouse to be hung from chains, brutalized throughout; refusing to apologize to the boss he has his hand squashed with a colossal wrench and then he is buried in mud—meaning he must crawl from the deep-six with only one good hand. The boss has him nearly killed, but he gives him several chances to make amends, the last of which Sun-woo takes advantage of to escape while taking out a large group of henchmen in the process. From skull-stabbing with a cell phone battery to slamming a face in to a wall and dragging it along the brick and hijacking a car to flee this character takes the tough guy persona to another level, surviving multiple stab wounds, gun shots and more and dealing death and destruction in response. I recommend watching at least this one sequence at full volume.
If nothing else, fans of gangster films (or fist and gun-play in general) should appreciate this film for its inventive badassery alone. The sequences of capture, savage humiliation and escape are particularly striking: rain falls throughout, evoking a sense of urgency and hopelessness at the same time; of course it is late at night so this is the least colorful part of the film, that is until the escape scene when the frame erupts in a furious blood-soaked array of fiery reds and oranges.
“If the hammer is light the nail will rise back up,” the boss comments to his associates in light of Sun-woos audacious escape. At this point the gangster myths are fully illuminated and you realize that A Bittersweet Life all along has attempted to turn the tropes of the genre on their head. He adds, “If the boss says you’re wrong then you’re wrong… even if you didn’t really do it.” The rules of the game, codified daily in the visceral, dog-eat-dog world of organized crime are here bluntly stated as a matter of fact. Director Kim Ji-woon seems to be aiming at satire while never indulging in it, the sporadic comedy sprinkled throughout this film hurled at the entire enterprise, mocking it at a distance. But a true satire would likely only blunt the sharp edge so skillfully honed here, that is the reality of the tragedy unfolding in the most violent ways imaginable. Instead A Bittersweet Life embraces black comedy, deftly scripted by the director himself and something the latest generation of South Korean filmmakers continue to weave so skillfully in to their work.
The bossman then furnishes an anecdote of a strikingly similar incident: “That guy lost his hand. One promising guy’s life ended just like that one morning. This time one hand is not enough.” Sun-woo, resigned to his fate, sets about eliminating the organization that fostered him and has now so degraded him. He purchases weapons from a cadre of Russian (or Mongolian?) arms dealers in a hilarious encounter that simply must be seen. The penultimate action sequence to follow grants the director one more opportunity for irony: as Sun-woo aims a pistol at his former master, three words adorning the bar become visible between their figures: La Dolce Vita. It’s my guess that this is a very clever reference to Fellini’s film, a work of pomp and circumstance deriding the self-indulgent aristocracy of 1950s Italy. The intended analogy could be that the gangster lifestyle too is absurd and our romantic preoccupation with it is painfully deluded. Perhaps it’s a relic of the 20th century best left behind. If this is true we can extend the analogy to include our protagonist who, like Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s yarn, is searching for a more meaningful way of life, one that, due to present circumstances and the rigor of his chosen lifestyle generally, he can never realize. This interpretation lends itself to the following parable which bookends the film:
“One late autumn night the disciple woke up crying, so the master asked the disciple, ‘Did you have a nightmare?’ ‘No.’ ‘Did you have a sad dream?’ ‘No,’ said the disciple. ‘I had a sweet dream.’ ‘Then why are you crying so sadly?’ The disciple answered quietly while wiping his tears. ‘Because the dream I had can’t come true.”
With it’s inventive choreography, sentimentalism, intelligent scripting, strong acting, clever interpolation of gangster tropes and it’s charm, A Bittersweet Life is an impressive piece of filmmaking. Keep an eye on Kim Ji-woon in the years to come and also check out his genre-blending, western revisionist, action/thriller/comedy The Good, The Bad, The Weird as well.