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A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng) (Hangul: 달콤한인생) is a 2005 South Korean film by Kim Ji-woon. Highly cultural and ruthlessly violent, it illustrates the ethical codes in the Korean mob and how they clash with personal morality.


Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is an enforcer and manager for a hotel owned by a cold, calculating crime boss, Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol), to whom he is unquestionably loyal. The two share concerns over business tensions with Baek Jr., a son from a rival family, which is when Kang assigns Sun-Woo what is perceived (at first) to be a simple errand while he is away on a business trip — to shadow his young mistress, Heesoo (Shin Min-a), for fear that she may be cheating on him with another, much younger man, with the mandate that he must kill them both if he discovers their affair. As he performs his duty — following Heesoo, and escorting her to a music recital one day — he becomes quietly enthralled by the girl's beauty and innocence, as glimpses into his lonely, empty personal life become more prevalent.

When he does come to discover Heesoo's secret lover directly in her home, he fiercely beats him, but seeing the girl's traumatized state causes him to take pause, pulled by his attraction to her. He thus spares the two on the condition that they no longer see each other again, causing her to harbour enmity towards him, despite the fact he had saved their lives at his own expense.

Meanwhile, Sun-woo continues to be embroiled in personal business with Baek Jr., over having beaten up several of his henchmen earlier for overstaying their welcome at the hotel. He is then threatened by one of his enforcers to apologize, but he adamantly refuses, fueled by his frustrations over Heesoo. As he relaxes in his apartment later one night, he is suddenly kidnapped by Baek's men to be tortured, but before they can do so, they receive new orders via phone call, and he is abruptly carried off to Kang, who has returned from overseas and has found out about his attempted cover-up of Heesoo's affair. Kang's men torture him into confessing why he lied, until he is left alone to think about his answer. A daring but messy escape follows, after which Sun-woo plans his revenge.

Help from one of Sun-woo's loyal co-workers provides him with money and new clothes to go about his plan: he secretly delivers Heesoo a gift to make amends, and he sets up a meeting with some local arms dealers, but as they work for Kang's organization, he ends up killing them over a deal to buy a handgun — this incurs a vendetta with the brother of one of the dealers, who promptly sets out to find Sun-woo. He then goes on to set up a fake rendezvous with Baek Jr., exchanging words and killing him as well, though he is viciously stabbed in the process. Bleeding, his violent shooting spree leads directly to Kang amidst one of his business meetings, where he vents at him his anger over how badly he has been treated, despite his many years of service. Kang remains coldly indifferent to his plight, seeing his position as absolute in the matter. Sun-woo then shoots him, prompting a shootout with Baek Jr.'s henchmen, who had quickly picked up his trail.

Sun-Woo emerges as the only survivor of the battle, with the arms dealer's brother finally catching up to him in the same room. Now dying from multiple gunshot wounds, he pauses to reminisce on his only day with Heesoo, when he had escorted her to her music recital; in his memory, as he watches her play her cello, he finds himself overwhelmed with emotion and, in a rare moment of contentment for Sun-woo, he smiles. As he sheds a tear over this memory, the brother puts a bullet in his head.

The next scene shows Sun-Woo looking out of a window at the city below him and then beginning to shadowbox his reflection in the glass. The ending is a flashback to a happier time in his life, but could also offer a different interpretation. As it continues from when Kim Sun-Woo was drinking his coffee, and because of the proverbial references to a teacher and his apprentice and because of the arguably unrealistic action in the film, the film could be seen as a story imagined by Kim Sun-Woo. 

"A Bittersweet Life," starring Lee Byung-hun from "Everybody Has a Little Secret" and Shin Mina from "Madeleine," portrays the desperate and brutal revenge of Sun-woo (played by Lee) after he is expelled from his gang and comes close to being killed by his boss. Lee Byung-hun is a hitman who falls for the girlfriend of his boss in the stylishly violent "A Bittersweet Life." Conventional ideas of causation are put into doubt in director Kim Jee-woon's twist on film noire. "A Bittersweet Life (Talkomhan Insaeng)" is what Korean critics are describing as 'Action Noire.' In it, he tweaks the traditional Korean gangster story line, presenting a work with film noire undertones and stylish cinematography.
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review by . April 11, 2011
I knew I’d seen Byung-hun Lee before.  He starred as “Storm Shadow” in G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA, and, with what little he was given in that tent-pole summer film from director Stephen Sommers, he did a masterful job, so much so that I knew I’d see him again.  Little did I expect that it would be in a film he had done before G.I. JOE, back in 2005’s A BITTERSWEET LIFE.       Despite its more popular conventions, LIFE is a bit of …
review by . January 05, 2009
posted in ASIANatomy
At first impression, it would be easy to dismiss director Kim Jee-Woon's (A Tale Of Two Sisters) film as another revenge thriller from South Korea in the same vein as Park Chan-Wook's "Vengeance Trilogy" and just another John Woo affair such as "The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled". I wouldn't bother writing a new review if this was just a typical revenge flick. "A BITTERSWEET LIFE" (2005) is a dazzling neo-noir gangster film that is a "cardboard" …
review by . April 03, 2007
posted in ASIANatomy
In the same vein as "Oldboy" comes "A Bittersweet Life," a movie so good it shocked me when watching it for the first time. It's a violent revenge movie with a gripping story with some fantastic actors such as Byung-hun Lee. He stars as Seon-woo, an enforcer for President Kang, a very dangerous man and if he wants to get rid of people, Seon-woo is the one taking care of it. The most interesting thing about this movie besides the story being so great is Seon-woo himself. The way Byung-hun Lee has …
review by . March 29, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
I just can't get enough of these Korean revenge films because they're just so different and unique from your normal revenge plot. Now of course a film like this or one of the films from Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance trilogy" won't be appreciated by all simply because some may think they go to far with the amount of violence. It really depends on what your limit is but I had no problem with any of these films.     Sun-woo is a mob enforcer and a darn good one, as you'll see in the …
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