Death comes dropping slow in Korean director Kim Jee Woon’s (A Tale of Two Sisters) new crime thriller A Bittersweet Life. For seven years, loyal Sun Woo (Lee Byung-hun) has acted as a mob enforcer for a mafia syndicate led by the elderly President Kang (Kim Young-chul), under the cover of managing the swanky ‘Dolce Vita’ bar. One day, Kang asks Sun Woo to do him a personal favour: He must go out of town for a few days on business, and needs someone to keep an eye on his young mistress Hee Soo (Shim Min-ah), who he suspects might be seeing another man behind his back. If she is indeed cheating on him, then Sun Woo must use his considerable killing skills to settle the matter. Sure enough, Sun Woo catches the girl in her innocent deception, but rather than murder her in cold blood as per orders, he allows her and her terrified lover to live, as long as they swear never to see each other again.
It's this simple act of mercy, wholly out of character, that will ultimately cost Sun Woo dearly.
A poignant, molasses-black and aesthetically flawless revenge story, Bittersweet is another top-notch film from the hugely impressive Kim Jee-woon whose expert touch leavens the frantic and bloodsoaked action with moments of comedy, physical bravado and touching silence. Lee Byung-hun, better known in Korea as a classic romantic male lead, is a terrifyingly internalised and psychopathically remote presence here, playing the handsome, ruthless gangster with an assured confidence and calm that gives tremendous grit to his bloodsoaked adventures. He is, oddly, very likeable. Shim Min-Ah offers the perfect mix of naivite and sexuality with Kim Young-chul’s duplicitous leer perfect for the vicious mob leader; a preening pecksniff doling out punishments or reward with a wave of his cufflinked hand. The remainder of the ensemble cast are uniformly marvellous, making scenes that might appear derivative or stale seem fresh and exciting again when redrawn through the broken prism of the new Asian cinema.
Throughout, the film contains sly, perfectly judged homages to David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and even the frantic 80s bullet ballets of Arnold Schwarzenegger; all filtered through the individual eye of the director, who has crafted another memorable, visually splendid film that holds untold riches for the growing legion of Korean cinema fans, and fans of noir cinema regardless of origin. Technically flawless, narratively fluent, boasting an impressive soundtrack, a grinding sound mix and some wonderfully staged and genuinely stomach-turning violence, Bittersweet is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of his game.
*** It occured to me as I was posting this review that I never got round to talking about how almost every major character in the movie ends up with major damage to their left hand - usually the effects of a shotgun blast. Did anyone else notice that and has anybody any idea what it might mean? I'm thinking "if your left hand offends you, cut it off", like in the Bible, except here there's a bad guy with a bowie knife to save you the trouble...***