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Korean Action Crime Drama

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Revenge Has Never Looked this DAMNED GOOD!

  • Jan 5, 2009

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" cut-out of EXACTLY what a gangster film should be--remember: "If it's not broken, then don't fix it"--the film is just terrific. It may not have the most original plot in existence but the film makes it work, revenge has never looked this damn good!

Sunwoo (Lee Byung Hun) is the stone-faced, impeccably-dressed, trusted right hand enforcer of a gang boss named Kang (Kim Yeong-Chul). When Kang is about to leave on business, he sends Sunwoo to spy on his young girlfriend, Hee-Soo (Shin Minah, Volcano High) because he suspects her to be cheating on him with another man. Sunwoo keeps an eye on the girl who slowly begins to intrigue him, while he keeps things in order at his boss's hotel. Being a man so used to be in control, using any means necessary. One evening, he discovers Hee-Soo with another man, and for someone so emotionless, and cold, Sunwoo does the unthinkable and grants Hee-Soo an act of mercy, on the condition that she sever all ties with her lover. Unfortunately, this act of weakness has provoked his boss's ire and the end result will forever change his life.



Excellently shot, with lush cinematography, "A Bittersweet Life" is a visual and aural feast. The way director Kim Jee-Woon shoots the film is beautiful and almost eerily "spectral-like". The fancy camerawork is further complemented with the film's excellent soundtrack, the quality of the cinematography is insanely cool but at the same time exudes a "classy" and a very real atmosphere. The film is ultra-violent, and the attitude it just gives off is brilliant. The Long silence, accompanied by the close-ups and the violent set ups are so meticulously planned and carefully shot. Scenes such as Sunwoo flicking his light on and off, the sudden strong rush of wind, the close-ups of Hee-Soo's neck and ears are director Kim's lush touches of the film's strong mood.

The film also shows a lot of emotion and is anything but a brainless action film. The opening act of the film says a lot about Sunwoo, as his daily routine at home. He has been a loyal servant to Kang, what made him disobey in Hee-Soo's case? It isn't love, it's not as predictable as that. Before he decides to disobey his boss's orders, we slowly see Sunwoo come to an epiphany. However, we are not privy to this realization until the final scene of the film, as everything that came before begins to make perfect sense.

The film becomes a visceral, wall-to wall action film when Sun-woo goes against Kang; the carnage goes to overdrive. The gunplay may have been somewhat influenced by the usual Hong Kong and Japanese style but it manages to stand on its own. The movie is also very cool and fresh; with nice touches, like a quiet moment wherein Sun-woo placidly savors a slice of chocolate cake before `going to work', adds a load of style, at the same time sets a moody atmosphere. The black suits that gangsters usually wear looks crisper and cooler than ever, the lighting complements a strong alluringly attractive atmosphere but at the same time, it feels cold and foreboding. Kim isn't afraid to experiment with his set designs and color schemes either.



As brutally, violent this film is, it's quite refreshing that the filmmakers didn't lose their sense of humor. To its credit, the film pitches in its share of comedic moments in the screenplay amidst all the blood and gore. "A Bittersweet Life" can be oddly funny at times with its share of cleverly paced moments of black humor. I loved the scene with the gun dealers and the scene with a rival gang boss--Kim did his homework, as he manages to remember that mood changes aid a film's pace as long as it doesn‘t affect the film‘s momentum.

Lee Byung-hun does a very convincing job in his portrayal of Sunwoo's character. The actor brings a certain depth and dynamic charisma to his anti-hero role, which is very impressive when we consider that a fully-realized characterization of Sunwoo hampered by the fact that his motivations MUST NOT be revealed until the film's climax. Even so, Lee conveys a sense of his character's life, even if it isn't something readily apparent by the script. Viewers will have to also take into account that the film is a (Sunwoo's) character study (of sorts) of a person who lived most of his life in the shadow of violence which in turn may make one an empty shell. The things that most people may take fore granted may be considered so "fulfilling" to someone with Sun-woo's life. The supporting cast led by Kim Yeong-Chul is also excellent and promotes a character very confident and assured despite his age.

"A Bittersweet Life" is a beautifully shot, wholly engaging cinematic experience. The film is so carefully and meticulously executed that some viewers may see it as superficial and too stylish. Thankfully, that impression actually seems to be based on how the film is made, as all plot elements are meant to build towards the film's conclusion in which the TRUE motivation behind Sunwoo's quest for revenge is revealed. Quite visceral, sometimes lyrical, poetic and even comical, "A Bittersweet Life" is a complete cinematic experience and contains a climax to bring it to a "Bitter and  sooo sweet" close.

To sum it up, it is just AWESOME!




I own the (Region-3, Korean release) 2- DISC Director's cut of A Bittersweet Life that clocks in at about 122 minutes. I cannot make a statement how it differs from the Theatrical cut since I haven't seen the "shorter" cut of the film in theaters.
Picture/Audio: 2.35 Anamorphic Widescreen. The transfer is very decent but not without a few flaws. There is a small amount of grain in some scenes and some heavy edge enhancements. On the plus side, it does have nice colors, accurate skin tones and strong (but detailed) black levels. Overall, still a good transfer. Korean 6.1 DTS-ES, 6.1 Dolby Digital, 2.0 surround language mix. If you're equipped, the DTS track is the way to go as it provides intense and immersive listening experience that really brings the action and gunplay to life. The 6.1 Dolby Digital is not bad, but it does have a lower bass level. The English subtitles are clean and clear, very easy to read.
EXTRAS; COMMENTARIES/Interviews, Making of feature, Set/production designs, "CANNES Film Festival Footage"..many more.

This re-written review is a Lunch.com exclusive

Poster 4 ½ + Stars: Revenge Has Never Looked this DAMNED GOOD! 4 ½ + Stars: Revenge Has Never Looked this DAMNED GOOD! 4 ½ + Stars: Revenge Has Never Looked this DAMNED GOOD! scene scene scene scene scene scene

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April 11, 2011
Great film, and great review, all around. I'd tend to say that I did see a lot in common thematically with John Woo's THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED (certainly from the standpoint of being an 'auteur' in crafting their own stories visually), and I also see an awful lot of shared influence with what Johnny To has been doing for so long. A BITTERSWEET LIFE just looked so damn slick, in addition, whereas Woo's stuff (I think) tends to have ... erm ... maybe an 'edgier' feel to some of it. I certainly see great similarity between Johnny To and Kim Jee-woon's visuals, though. I could see both of the directors stories being "told" in the same universe, as it were. Great gangsterism, through and through, arguably greater than a lotta stuff that comes out in the US (though the US has long tried to stamp a claim on solid gangster films). Thanks for the recommendation on this one. I had a lotta fun with it.
April 12, 2011
I agree. Woo is a little more gritty unless he is shooting a commercial film. I've always seen Kim Jee-Woon as sort of a Michael Mann myself. I am glad you liked this one, it is one of my favorite Korean movies of all time. Have you seen "Election"?
April 12, 2011
I have not yet seen ELECTION. I know I have it around the house somewheres. It's just one of them there films I haven't yet taken the time to sit down and watch.
April 13, 2011
I know the feeling...I have like 30 movies I haven't seen and some of them are still sitting on my shelf LOL!!
December 05, 2010
I need that 2 Disc set, great review WP.
December 06, 2010
take a guess why an official release is being delayed? They are remaking it!
October 30, 2009
Korean film makings are getting very proficient in displaying human emotions and the depth of character. Not simply in films but also on television. I love the plots too as they are often unpredictable, unlike Hong Kong or Hollywood's films. You certainly have seen enough of them so you'd know what I'm talking about. Great that you've so much passion in your reviews about films. Keep that up, I'm sure lots on Lunch have enjoyed them!
November 06, 2009
Thanks, Sharrie! I am trying to be a different movie reviewer by promoting movies that are barely being reviewed by professionals in the U.S. Korean cinema has indeed gone a long way since they began. What makes them unpredictable is the fact that Korean and Japanese movies seem to lean towards an unhappy ending that refelcts on reality. I guess it sure helps that they maintain a style that is their own while adapting to commercial tastes.
January 05, 2009
QueenBflix, hello there! The one thing that kept from giving it an unapologetic 5 stars is the fact that the main premise isn't very original--a right-hand man going up against his boss has been overdone. But the reasons for it aren't as simple as most people think....
January 05, 2009
I'm honored to be the first one here, Woop! You knocked yourself out on this one. But I have to ask, given all you have to say about this film what kept you from giving it a 5 especially since it has your "highest possible recommendation"?
More A Bittersweet Life reviews
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 . 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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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.


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