A Bittersweet Life

Film, Action and adventure

Time Out says

Having shown technical sophistication and superb tonal control in his last movie, the psychological horror ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, Kim Ji-Woon displays his versatility with this brutal gangster thriller. The svelte Lee Byung-Hun (the sergeant in ‘Joint Security Area’) dominates this revisionist noir with an intriguing study in low-key psychopathy as enforcer Sun-Woo. His psychological gear-changes from an at-rest persona which mixes Zen inscrutability with Melville-esque taciturnity to whirlwind killer are a template for the film’s own narrative dynamics. Detailed to shadow his jealous boss’s classy young cellist squeeze (Shin Mina), Sun-Woo suffers a moment of weakness – has this killer a heart? – that triggers the subsequent violence and propels the movie along the increasingly bloody path of the existential revenger’s tragedy.

Tough guys offer no explanations and neither does the director. The movie doesn’t offer much psychological depth, despite its master-pupil parables. Kim is a commercially minded filmmaker and makes sure he fulfils the East Asian quotas for pain infliction, fight scenes and body-count. But his cineaste’s enthusiasms keep surfacing: the action choreography by Chung Du-Hong is excellent – John Woo without the ballet and gay subtext – but you sense the director is equally proud of how his cinematographer Kim Ji-Young photographs the light gleaming on limousine bonnets in night-time Seoul, one of the film’s many pleasing chromatic variations on traditional noir iconography. Kim can quote Tarantino (a hilarious sequence with a rival boss beating up his own henchman) or pay tribute to Scorsese (dining rituals beneath crimson curtains) but is yet to declare his own heart.



Release details

Release date:
Friday January 20 2006
120 mins

Cast and crew

Kim Ji-Woon
Kim Ji-Woon
Hwang Jeong-Min
Ku Jin
Kim Roi-Ha
Yeong-cheol Kim
Lee Byung-Hun
Gi-yeong Lee
Min-a Shin
Chung-Min Hwang
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