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.
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.
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.
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.