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A Neo-Noir for the Lonely - 'A Bittersweet Life' Review

Updated on June 6, 2021
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, and I love film. My main interests are science fiction, zombie, pessimistic, and survival movies.

A Bittersweet Life – Dalkomhan insaeng

Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a respected mobster and a highly skilled enforcer. He works as the manager of a hotel which in reality is just a front for illegal activities. Sun-woo is the perfect soldier: stoic, loyal, effective and respectful.

His boss, Kang (Kim Yeong-Cheol) entrusts him with a personal mission: to escort or spy on his young mistress Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah) who apparently have been unfaithful. If Sun-woo certifies the betrayal, he must notify him immediately and take lethal action.

The Woman and Change

When Sun-woo meets Hee-soo, he is amazed by the delicate, beautiful presence of the young woman. For the clueless viewer, this is the beginning of a love story. But the reality is different. Sun-woo is a lonely man who has been dealing with human scum his entire life. It’s perhaps the first time in his outlaw life, that a mission targets a clearly innocent person.

The inevitable happens. Sun-woo finally discovers Hee-soo with another man. It is time for him to carry out his orders.

But for the first time in his life, Sun-woo choose his own moral code over the vertical mob structure.

That’s A Bittersweet Life. The odyssey of a renewed man that must confront an authority he has obeyed his entire life.

Director Kim Jee-Woon

Director Kim Jee-Woon is well-known for great films such as I Saw the Devil or The Good, the Bad, the Weird. He also has other not-so-flashy-but-equally-astonishing merits such as making possible for a film starring Johnny Knoxville and Arnold Schwarzenegger to be watchable and genuinely funny (Yes, I’m talking about The Last Stand). But if you need an entry point to his filmography, A Bittersweet Life is the way to go.

Jee-Woon has absolute control of the pulse of history, masterfully combining violent action, introspective compositions, Buddhist parables and humorous absurd situations.

Satisfying Action Scenes

The action sequences are incredibly real, "crunchy" and satisfying. As the story progresses, fistfights are replaced for cold weapons which later become potent firearms. The stunts, sound mixing, editing, framing, everything works perfectly in this escalating violence.

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Visual Clues and the Power of Images

Jee-won understands the power of images like Guillermo Del Toro or Nicolas Winding Refn. His work is full of visual clues that enhance the character traits and the situations they're in. For example, a psychological internal conflict that could have been explained with several lines of dialogue, it's synthesized perfectly with a sequence where Sun-woo shadowbox with her reflection in the glass of a PH, overlooking the city at night. This effective storytelling achieves that every frame is, in fact, communicating us something important at all times.

A Bittersweet Life is one of those movies that keep the viewer's attention at all times thanks to its absolute honesty. There are no surprising plot twists or hidden agendas.

It's just a sincere and heartfelt history of a man who has discovered—too late— freedom of choice.

Movie Details

Title: A Bittersweet Life

Release Year: 2005

Director(s): Jee-woon Kim

Actors: Byung-Hun Lee, Min-a Shin, Yeong-cheol Kim, a.o.

4 stars for A Bittersweet Life

© 2019 Sam Shepards


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