A Bittersweet Life
2005Director: Kim Jee-woon
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Hwang Jeong-min, Shin Min-a
es, A Bittersweet Life is a Korean soufflé of tragically flawed heroes, show-offy visuals, extreme violence, and dubiously callous ethics. But Kim Jee-woon is not Park Chan-wook. Curiously, the strongest point of distinction is Kim’s inclination toward Eastern spirituality. Bittersweet Life’s erstwhile-claimed reference point is Oldboy, but gross as that cross-over hit was, it had aspirations to Western moralism. Frat boys scuttered back to their dorms from university screenings, gingerly tendering to enthused chums, “I really wanna see that again, but… ew…” Perhaps Park owes at least a portion of his success in the States to the inexorable role of the taboos he doles out in our culture, best exemplified in that indelible Eurotrip quip, “You made out with your sister, man!”
Like Oldboy’s Oh Dae-su, Bittersweet Life’s protagonist, Kim Sun-woo, has a secret. But while Dae-su’s is rooted in the discarded memories of Freud’s unconscious, Sun-woo’s is plain for any sentient viewer to see, only a shame in his uniquely repressed milieu. Among Sun-woo’s mafioso confidantes, where any slight palpitation of the heart may precipitate an earthquake, love is an impossibility. So when the taciturn hitman falls for Hee-soo, a fair lamb he’s assigned to coldly shadow, hell breaks loose. Sun-woo’s sudden divergence from his amoral pals looks ostensibly Samaritan, but ultimately seems less an act of kindness than fetishistic obsession. Thus, Sun-woo moves beyond the simple role of an ambiguous hero into something much more interesting and potentially unredeemable, at worst a stubborn prick and at best a horny, stubborn prick.
Intractability is Sun-woo’s bane, and while nothing new, is awfully refreshing in the realm of the hubristic action hero. There’s a scene in which a cronie balefully suggests that Sun-woo reconsider his alliance with the boss’ ex-mistress, and forcefully offers, “Three words: I. Am. Sorry.” I identified with Sun-woo’s steadfast reticence, and it was a shocker to pinpoint the particular incident I was drawing from to empathize: Sun-woo was me, as a recalcitrant four-year-old fond of stealing trikes, and the cronie was a deeply frustrated pre-school teacher. Moreover, prepare to regress, should you find Sun-woo a tad cocky.
Just as Sun-woo would never top any guest lists, he’s hard to derive complexity from, and in the role, Lee Byung-hun summons a physical presence infinitely more striking than his emotional intimations. Lee emotes as though programmed to permute three expressions: indignant, blasé, and pleased. But he also combines Jackie Chan dexterity with coolly efficient terseness, never firing one shot too many. A glorious set-piece finds Sun-woo being inadvertently instructed to take down said instructor, and Lee’s combo of wordless, childlike anxiety and animalistic instinct makes it work. It’s 90% set-up, 10% payoff, with a wince-inducing chaser redolent of the more gruesome inserts from A History of Violence, the catch being that Sun-woo has always been Joey Cusack.
Kim’s Bazin-worthy patience for a scene’s natural development, along with his predilection for lengthy, quietly ominous two-shots, are complementary to the unadorned economy of Lee’s performance. His editing strategy traffics heavily in non-empathetic, seemingly extraneous inserts of dazzlingly gorgeous stuff: a woman’s jet-black hair shines like the sun; an ice-hockey rink serves as the palette for crimson mayhem; a gelatin dessert is so positively antiseptic you can see yourself in it. These details would seem excessively prettifying if they weren’t so commonplace, so small. It’s this contradictory mesh of banality and loveliness that fuels Kim’s Nabokovian intelligence in articulating Sun-woo’s obsession. Sun-woo often flashes back to a recording studio where he observes Hee-soo perform in an ensemble. She’s on the cello, however, and the lead in the piece is screamingly, obviously the violin, standing a few chairs away; the metronomic intonations of Sun-woo’s prized lass are barely audible. Excuse me, Mr. Bad Ass, but that’s pretty hilariously pathetic.
Indeed, in A Bittersweet Life, Kim explores how fickle men can weave an ideal of supreme beauty from the most anonymous of maidens. The film opens and closes on non-diegetic Zen aphorisms apparently out-of-place with the sleek, machismo thriller sandwiched within; both involve a naïve disciple and a master who shows the child the ways of his solipsism. Like the disciple, Sun-woo is brashly solipsistic, but in a world where his superiors are similarly imprisoned, he has no master to learn from. Kim, per Sun-woo, embellishes over pretty things, but also has the intelligence to recognize how frail those things really are; he’s the disciple, and the master. It’s a markedly Eastern sensibility, cognizant of aestheticism but wary of its limits. To Kim, life is simply there, to be savored while it lasts. When Kim’s characters beg for their lives, they’re begging for just that—life. Not compassion, forgiveness, or brotherhood; simply existence, and all the sensory graces it entails. The fruit of Screenwriting 101 will object, but to this reviewer, his primacy is breathtaking.