Tag Archives: Byung-hun Lee

Cinema-Maniac: A Bittersweet Life (2005)

You normally wouldn’t be able to tell from the movies I regularly write about, but I’m actually a big fan of slow pace, character driven movies. Movies on the level of Blade Runner (1982), and its sequel Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) are movies that I am more than happy to just eat up. A strong character will always stay with me, even if I forget certain details about the story being told. In the case of the Blade Runner franchise, it’s biggest draw to me is that it never forgets the people, and their struggle in its story set among the bigger scope of events in them. The character driven films that stick in my mind, and remain is something I can never predict. It’s just something that happens either during the viewing of something, or overtime a character becomes further to my liking. It’s the latter example that happened with A Bittersweet Life; during my viewing experience I was engrossed with the movie, and it’s beautiful mixture of multiple genres. Once the closing credits started rolling did it dawn on me weeks later how much I enjoyed how its protagonist was handle among other things.

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Insert famous Godfather line “I’ll make an offer he can’t refuse” here

A Bittersweet Life follows high ranking mobster Sun-woo (Byung-Hun Lee) spying on his boss’s girlfriend while he’s away on a business trip. I know the synopsis doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but the less revealed about the specifics of where the movie goes the better the experience will be. This is a deliberately pace film; being film noir for the first hour before changing gear into a revenge, crime action film for the remainder of its run. It has the writing style of a art house movie in terms of progression, character growth, and exploring themes, but streamlined in a more simplistic manner. In its root, it tells a simple story that’s easy to understand. The most complex it gets story wise is how ambiguous, and generalize certain aspects of Sun-woo is, but never to the point where it just seems its vagueness is use to cover up weak writing.

What’s not cut, and dry is the lead character himself Sun-woo. Being character driven, Sun-woo is only taken out off screen when needed too. These Sun-woo-less scenes typically deliver exposition, but on some occasion reveal more about the kind of person Sun-woo is, and what people think about him. Very little shown about Sun-woo past from his perspective with most of what the viewer learning about Sun-woo coming from secondary sources. The few things that Sun-woo indirectly tells the audience about himself are generalize. For instinct, the first lines in the movie tells the viewer a young Sun-woo is crying because he a had a dream that can’t be true. Exactly how this works in the Korean mobsters underworld in its favor is part of its majesty. Much like the whole ordeal of dreams being unable to come true, most of Sun-woo feelings is shown externally hardly expressing himself with words. This especially applies in the first half portraying Sun-woo as a loyal, and obedient mobster to his boss. Using the simplicity of Sun-woo interaction to convey broad ideas.

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Insert “What in the box?” reference from Seven here.

Sun-woo walks a thin line between being a one dimensional character, or a husk of a character to tackle broad themes. Thankfully, what prevents Sun-woo from being a bad character is it somewhat ambiguous nature. Due to its using broad ideas like dreams, beauty, and love for it themes it never dares to confirm anything for the viewer. However, because of how it structure in the first half the viewer is extensively shown Sun-woo reaction towards everything. It through this first half that establishes the dark reality that Sun-woo lives in, pent up frustration he must release, and starting to question the orders he’s given for the first time in life. Seeing what kind of world he lives in, and slowly revealing who Sun-woo truly is. 

This all eventually culminates in the second half of the film following the guidelines of what you would expect from a revenge, crime action film. You’ll get the eventual short bursts of violence, and bloodshed in the finale when Sun-woo finally seeks revenge. Surprisingly, it also shares a dark sense of humor. My personal favorite comedic bit involves Sun-woo meeting up two gun dealers for a deal, and end up with the two gun dealers arguing so much they end up crashing their car. When the ending finally comes nothing about what the story, or what it was all intended to be about becomes any clearer to the viewer. Allowing the viewer to figure out what the specifics from the pieces it scatter around, and best part of all it earned a up to interpretation ending with the groundwork it laid out. One thing that is unquestionable about its story is that it definitely lives up to its title.

Lee Byung-hun is a scene stealer in a reserve, and personal performance. It’s a physically subdue performance spending the first half being quiet. Resulting in many scenes where the camera will simply focus on Lee Byung-hun reaction to things around him. His mannerism is well fitted for his character giving a professional aura around him with some hidden secrets. Providing a sense of a lost soul, and someone with pent up frustration. Masterfully transitioning into the second half where Lee Byung-hun receives more physically demanding scenes. In particular, an action sequence that requires him to make a messy escape from an abandoned building surrounded by people wanting to kill him. Doing his action scenes, Lee Byung-hun makes the impossibility of a lone person taking on a dozen men look convincing. Even in the first half which has two fight scenes, Lee Byung-hun is so good one can be fooled into thinking he’s some kind of martial artist. He’s gives it his all in his performance, and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

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Lee Byung-hun being a badass

Supporting cast gets overshadow by Lee Byung-hun impressive performance, but they also get to shine whenever on screen. Shin Min-ah gives the most vulnerable performance in the cast. Unlike her male co stars, she doesn’t play a character within the criminal world. Allowing her to be more lively compare to her co-stars, and allowing her to build her performance around being ordinary. Kim Yeoung-cheol who plays the crime boss is excellently cold in his portrayal. Coming across as ruthless, and understanding simultaneously. It’s certainly his more control angered scenes that allows him to display his influence over Lee Byung-hun. There’s also Hwang Jung-min who does well playing the arrogant, and ruthless son of a rival family. Holding nothing back in his portrayal.

Lastly, Kim Jee-woon who directed, and wrote the movie did an outstanding job. He treats every tool at his disposal to tell his story equally. Be it his carefully chosen music featuring Spanish-inspired guitar pieces, techno, pseudo classical violin pieces, and jazzy/salsa influenced guitar riffs that perfectly coincide with the ever changing moods. The cinematography that is intimate during it dramatic portions, sweeping during it action sequences to see masterful action choreography very clearly, and simply moody & dreamlike with its lighting to create a noir atmosphere. The editing is seamless, especially during the fantastic action sequences were it all flows naturally. Finally, his best trait in this movie is his restraint to go too much into any genre convention, and his trust on the audience to embrace his deliberate storytelling.

A Bittersweet Life combines elements of film noir, art house cinema, action, black comedy, and gangster film into one beautiful package. Offering enough of each genre it blends together to satisfy both casual viewers, and movie enthusiasts of all kind. It’s the type of movie that is engrossing in several different way, and exceeding expectations in area you wouldn’t expect from it. Pulling of what art house cinema is best at, but with the streamlined execution of a mainstream movie that can appeal to anyone when accomplished this perfectly. 

Rating: 10/10

Cinema-Maniac: I Saw the Devil (2010) Review

If there’s another genre that had a bigger fall from grace it would be the horror genre. Much like the action genre, allot of fans can agree the 80s was where it peaked in popularity. However, horror can still continue to push the boundary of what is acceptable both visually, and from a creative perspective. How much is too much when it comes to blood, and gore. How in depth of an character exploration can you create before you begin thinking like a killer. Horror has the ability, more so than other genre, to put viewers in a uncomfortable situations, and even scare them in some cases. As someone who doesn’t see allot of horror movies it’s unfortunate very few horror films from the 90s, and 2000s didn’t entice me in viewing the genre without a preconceived notion. What made matter worse is despite having seen very few horror films, most of what I was exposed to by friends, and family were generally trite films within the genre. There were eventually films that won me over like 1931 Frankenstein, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974 (the only horror movie to scare me to date), and George A. Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead which is my all time favorite zombie film. That’s why I’m happy to write about I Saw the Devil. A modern horror film that is hybrid with a psychological thriller, and succeed for all the right reasons work as well it should have.

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Choi Min-sik: “Mmm, I could use this arm for a pie.”

I Saw the Devil is about a secret agent exacting revenge on a serial killer through a series of captures and releases. While not entirely a horror film, one admirable trait that I Saw the Devil accomplishes far better than general horror films is contextualizing the blood, and gore. Too often do many films within this genre disregard characters, and story for the sake of bloodshed. The film is deliberately slow paced for this singular reason. For starter, it slow pacing helps it create an atmosphere of dread over it’s main Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). What it also allows for is to display impatience within Kim Soo-hyeon witnessing him losing sleep over finding his wife’s killer. Showing Kim Soo-hyeon will do anything in his position in the name of vengeance. Splicing scenes of both Kim Soo-hyeon, and Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) current activities in the film to never lose focus of time. Showing the two men psychology are similar in certain ways, but makes it easy to determine who the film wants you to sympathize with as Kim Soo-hyeon is going after killers while Kyung-chul goes after women to kill.

Another aspect of the story that is appealing is putting a twist on a familiar premise. In some horror films, if the victim of the deceased faces with the killer it’s either save until the climax, or becomes a film where the victim tortures the killer until someone dies in both scenario. By the end of the first act, the film victim Kim Soo-hyeon confronts killer Kyung-chul in which, surprisingly a choreographed fight scene ensues. After this confrontation, the film still continues by using a hunter, and the hunted mentality for its characters. At certain points in the film, this mind game between the two characters are discussed in the film. One attempted to be persuaded to simply let up on the vengeance, and ponder if there’s any value in it. For another he receives a taste of his own medicine while also deriving pleasure of how to get under the skin of whoever chasing him. In terms of characterization enough is given about Kim Soo-hyeon to understand his action. Simple things like having a wife, and caring for his family is as deep as it goes for Kim Soo-hyeon as a person. It’s enough to give an idea of his mentality before he decides to take revenge, and seeing how his act of revenge ultimately affects eventually becomes a dynamic characterization.

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Come at me bro!

The same cannot be said for those it represent as killers since the film never bother exploring the psychological aspect of what can motivate its criminals to do the things they do. There’s a cannibal in the film who loves eating people, but that’s about as deep as it goes. All the criminals function as criminals. They’re meant to be evil for the sake of being evil in order to take pleasure in their deaths. It could be debated the intention was to to debate in the act of revenge itself is justified, but on the other hand the film does not lay down any ground work for greyness. Nothing is more evident of this than the usage of its female characters. From the victims perspectives they respect women as people, but every time a criminal interacts with a woman it’s with the intent to do whatever the criminal desire to do with them. It’s portrayal of representing both sides is one dimensional at best. Just fine for a revenge fantasy film, but when the script tacked on a family aspect to Kyung-chul character it says it wanted to be something more thought provoking. Made even noteworthy when it wants to use Kyung-chul family to get across a specific agenda that doesn’t work out since they’re only included in one before popping back up again. It hard see the film for anything other more than just a piece of revenge fantasy where viewers takes satisfaction in seeing its main character harm criminals.

Other issues within the film are specifically connected to the horror genre itself. Moments in the film required higher suspension of disbelief in order for the film to function the way it wants too. One of these problematic plot point is not Kim Soo-hyeon not killing his wife’s murderer when he’s given three good opportunities to do so. It’s given context, and established motivation for why Kim Soo-hyeon won’t simply kill Kyung-chul. What is not explained in the film is how Kyung-chul manage to find personal information of Kim Soo-hyeon within a quick span of time. There’s no mention in the film he’s connected with anyone in the police force, nor has ties with many criminals that can provide this information. Another issues comes in the form of useless police officers for the film both as characters, and narrative devices. Within the film, the police officers biggest contribution is making an arrest after Kim Soo-hyeon has another encounter with Kyung-chul. As far as usage go they give minimal remarks on how they dislike killers receiving medical treatment in a hospital despite their crimes, and does not provide additional characterization for any of the criminals. A miss opportunity for the police officers is providing a semblance of a man hunt. Rarely is there a mention of the police making progress of finding a suspect who is going after serial killers. There’s is a moment where it seems like the police are close to tracking down Kyung-chul, but it ends up being forgotten plot point. I would mention that the police did provide Kim Soo-hyeon information needed to track down his wife murderer as a positive from the police inclusion, but he’s a secret agent so information gathering wouldn’t be as difficult to obtain if he was an ordinary citizen.

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Choi Min-sik ain’t happy with this buried alive prank. 

I Saw the Devil is entirely reliant on talent of two highly regarded actors from Korea who are Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee. Choi Min-sik as the psychaotic Kyung-chul is a  performance that is show stealing. Portraying a psychopath whose proud, and takes pleasure in the accomplishment of his killings. Embodying the truest essence of a killer without going over the top. Choi Min-sik subdue portrayal makes his character much more memorable because of it. Coming off as human as possible making it believable in one moment he holds your best interest to then later on want to chop you up into pieces. Withholding any urge to exaggerate his mannerism, and body language. At the same time, despite how often the viewer will see him get abused, Min-sik is a talented actor that he’s still manage to make his character despicable. The character of Kyung-chul has remotely no essence of any likable traits, yet Choi Min-sik understanding of his character paints a clear understanding of his mentality. In the all best possible ways, Choi Min-sik delivers a performance is very impressive to see unfold as much as it is capable to make you immerse within the film.

Byung-hun Lee who plays isn’t too shabby himself in the film either. Lee does a excellent job displaying a character whom seem to have all life sucked out of him. Remaining calm in any situation, even when to face with the killer. Despite displaying a humanless exterior for most of the film when the situation demands it Byung-hun Lee, in a few scenes is able to be emotional. There’s a final moment as the film closes where in a single moment Lee be expresses how mentality broken his character has become. When it comes to the sequences that require to fight him against actor Choi Min-sik, and neither of whom are expert in martial arts their performance of these sequences can fool anyone. Especially Byung-hun Lee whose swift movement can make a viewer further believe he encompasses his perfectly. As for the rest of the cast they’re at best character actor being good at playing off that one specific trait of their characters. It’s no exaggeration when saying the film is essentially a showcase for actors Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee than. Given the film aims that’s not a negative. The (I’m surprise to have) stunts work in the film are have good work put into them, and in certain scenes amaze by its creativity.

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I’m huntin wabbits!

The film is directed by Jee-won Kim who also has a writing credit in the film. His direction in the film is basically flawless. Despite sporting a beautiful look thanks to Mo-gae Lee it still manages to create scenes that master of the horror genre would be proud off. One important tool in Kim framing of a horror sequence is lightning, and showing specific details of the environments. In the opening sequence, Jee-won Kim makes it clear how helpless one of Choi Min-sik victims is in the environment. A recurring feeling Jee-won Kim goes for is making the viewer feel trapped in certain environments. Rarely showing what’s on the outside of an car, or building when a horror set piece is in place. His usage of wide shots is minimal in the film mostly being reliant on close on medium, and close ups whenever in buildings, and cars. What it accomplishes is not showing any blind spot to where an escape route is possible. Another aspect Jee-won Kim avoids is the common horror trope of people tripping while they run. Since there isn’t a high death count that never becomes an issue. If there’s any moments where Jee-won Kim becomes indulgent it’s mostly towards horror fans. He makes up for the lack of kills by going all out in showing good practical effects of body parts, makes sure lots of blood is spilled, and doesn’t cut away from hard to watch sequences. There’s a scene there you see a character cutting off an Achilles tendon, and the viewer sees the entire process. Another standout sequence execellent direction revolves around Choi Min-sik riding in a taxi with suspicious characters. Without being specific, this particular is carefully constructed to be bloody displaying Choi Min-sik stabbing people multiple times in a taxi, and having little blood spill on the camera as it spins around taxi. Jee-won Kim is relentless where it counts, but not overboard to the point where it’s indulgent on blood, and gore.

I Saw the Devil is wonderful combination of horror, and a psychological thriller understanding the best of both genre. The horror elements allows it to go into dark places as well as be bloody in presentation. Balance elegantly with the psychological mind games of two characters who simply hate each other guts to fuel it story after its first act. It’s a wonderfully twisted cat, and mouse game even when it’s clear at points it wants to be more than just revenge fantasy entertainment. On a technical level alone it offers two great performances from two good actor which alone makes it worth viewing. If you haven’t seen a good usage of horror within films, or simply a fan of horror movies I Saw the Devil will satisfy viewers who simply want the blood, and gore, while also offering viewers who are looking something more than just meaningless bloodshed.

8/10