Movies Books Music Food Tv Shows Technology Politics Video Games Parenting Fashion Green Living more >

Lunch » Tags » Movies » Reviews » A Bittersweet Life » User review

Movie poster

Korean Action Crime Drama

< read all 4 reviews

A Genuinely "Bittersweet" Experience

  • Apr 11, 2011
  • by
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 a puzzle.  It’s one part gangster film (if you learn anything from reading this review, I beg you to please take away from it the fact that many Eastern nations do gang films exceedingly well).  It’s equal part suspense/thriller.  It’s two parts romance (Eastern films about gangs tend to treat gangsterism with a high degree of romantic images, and LIFE is no different, but the backstory involves as unique a love triangle as you’ll see in any genuine period piece).  It’s cinematic eye candy with deep dark noir visuals and stark images of violence and brutality.  It’s good versus evil in a kind of funny “evil versus more evil” way.  Also, to my surprise, it’s a bit of existential melancholy, a rumination on life and how one gets to the dynamic crossroads one faces given the choices we make, and that I didn’t expect.
So, the real question is, “Does it all mesh well?”
There’s no doubt in my mind that LIFE’s writer/director Jee-woon Kim does fascinating work.  All one need do is take a look at his 2003 film, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (while I found parts of it a bit uneven, it’s as great as a modern ghost story as you’ll find anywhere on film); his use of character and images move the story along in a way few directors grasp.  Also, if you can get your hands on a copy of THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD, you’ll be as stunned and as shocked as I was to see what a visually commanding grasp of a Western (that’s right! A rip-roaring, shoot-‘em-up Wild Western! Done by a Korean!) as you’ll see on screens anywhere ever.  Jee-woom Kim has exceptional skills as a storyteller, and A BITTERSWEET LIFE, while a bit uneven like I found his TWO SISTERS film, is a handy addition to the man’s resume as an artist.  He puts a unique, crisp stamp on visuals, and he directs actors and actresses in such a way as to groom only the best contributions out of their work.
Still, the question remains, “Does it all mesh well?”
In my opinion, LIFE is not Jee-woon Kim’s best work to date – I think that distinction really stands, by far, with THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD – but it’s a very close second.  The film feels very much like two distinctly identifiable pieces, broken in half by the violence the main character unwittingly brings upon himself.  The first half the film is a slick gangster saga sprinkled with hints of a romance, and the second half is that existential meditation on the lives lived by the corrupt cast of characters.  Imagine, if you can, that the blazing gunfights are snapped up with meditative introspection wherein the gunmen stop, turn to the camera, and ask, “Why are we using guns?” or “Why did we decide to shoot at each other?”  It’s a jarring moment of realization, especially for a film predicated on violence and the exploration of its consequences, but it’s clearly what the writer/director wanted.  (Take heed: it never literally happens in such an obvious fashion.  If you’ve seen the film, I think you can understand the metaphor.  If you haven’t seen the film, then you may not find it as obvious or as borderline distracting as I did.)
This isn’t to say that it’s a bad or lesser technique.  I think it all goes to a matter of taste, that I can describe better with my dislike for the Spider-man films.  Those flicks by Sam Raimi are lovingly made, but my problem with them comes with the fact that, for my tastes, they spend too much time with the mildly whiney Peter Parker.  When I go to the movies, I want a hero who’s going to save the day, not a hero who’s going to spend 45 minutes ruminating over how life is unfair and why can’t anyone else rise up and save the damsel and why does it always have to me?  There are hints of that same characterization tied in to LIFE’s central character, Sun-woo, but under Jee-woon Kim’s direction, they are far subtler than a mainstream superhero action picture would allow.
With Eastern influences being what they are in film, there’s equal strength to some of the unstated conflict; as these films are clearly made outside of the Americanized studio system where every element is scrutinized beyond necessity.  As a consequence, I find that these particular foreign films maintain a truer sense of purpose because they can be more ‘raw’ in style and treatment.  (No, I’m not talking about buckets of blood!  I’m talking about the thematic approach employed by the director.)  They have greater complexity because some of what these characters do may NOT be in their own best interest.  Everyone trapped within A BITTERSWEET LIFE is living two lives, really.  One is the public face that everyone else believes they are, but then, when the lights are dimmed, they’re someone slightly different, and it’s when these less public images surface that the fires ignite, the guns are pulled, and the real drama begins.
Cleverly, LIFE follows that same structure: what you think you’re getting is not necessarily what you find yourself with at the end … and I think that’s the most ‘bittersweet’ moment of them all.

What did you think of this review?

Fun to Read
Post a Comment
April 12, 2011
I haven't gotten much into these types of films, but I really would love to. Great review!
April 11, 2011
awesome write up! I have to say you just gave me goosebumps. Feel free to message me anytime if you're in the mood for some Korean cinema (you can also join us at ASIANatomy). This is one of my favorite Korean movies of all time, happy you got a copy! Have you seen "Secret Sunshine" and "peppermint Candy"?
April 11, 2011
Glad you enjoyed the review, dude. Don't hesitate to drop some suggestions my way. I may not get time to either watch 'em or review 'em soon, but I generally get around to films that get recommended to me because, quite frankly, I have more luck when I get someone to point me in the direction of something that he/she feels is worth my time, especially when it comes to Korean and/or Asian films. I have to be entirely honest: I have a few friends who are always recommending me European flicks of all sorts, but I very very rarely find something coming out of any of the European countries or even the former Soviet Union that I've seriously enjoyed as much as I have Korean and/or Cantonese/Chinese films. I couldn't say why that is other than the fact that I tend to find less interesting characters populating European films. (And don't even get me started on French crap!) As for SECRET SUNSHINE or PEPPERMINT CANDY, neither strike a bell, though PEPPERMINT CANDY sounds familiar for some reason. I'll have to investigate what I can on the web, and I'll let you know if I've seen 'em or not. I'm not all that great with titles sometimes; I end up seeing so many that I rarely remember their names unless I'm just bowled away by the film. A BITTERSWEET LIFE was pretty awesome, though. That gets up there with some of the top stuff I've seen.
April 12, 2011
Ed, I will give you a list of a few movies that you may want to see. In ASIANatomy, there is a tag "Korean cinema", and you guessed it, I have plenty of reviews there. I would like to recommend "Tazza the High Rollers", "Silmido", Open City, No Blood No Tears, Art of Fighting and The Big Swindle (I have to review this one) from Korea. The SHOW MUST GO ON is also pretty good. Johnnie To's "Vengeance" is like Memento with a hitman theme. I also liked his film "Mad Detective" with strong Buddhist overtones. If you're familiar with Takeshi Kitano, you may enjoy Blood and Bones. Kabei Our Mother is a multi-award winner in Japan.
April 12, 2011
Oh, before I forget, if you like Park Chan-Wook I highly recommend "Thirst" (Korean vampire movie)
April 12, 2011
I'll put it on my list. THIRST. Again, sounds familiar. I may've read something about it, don't know that I've seen it.
April 12, 2011
I've seen SILMIDO. Loved that one. Also, I've seen Johnnie To's VENGEANCE. I'll probably watch that one a 2nd time before I write a review on it. Others will go on my list! Yes, I love some of Takeshi Kitano's work. He was great in SONATINE and FIREWORKS. Thanks!
More A Bittersweet Life reviews
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 …
About the reviewer
Ed ()
Ranked #12
What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops".   … more
Consider the Source

Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.

Your ratings:
rate more to improve this
About this topic


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.


view wiki


First to Review
© 2015 Lunch.com, LLC All Rights Reserved
Lunch.com - Relevant reviews by real people.
This is you!
Ranked #
Last login
Member since