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'A Bittersweet Life' [DVD Review]

2006/01/26 Source

Comparing it to Park Chan-wook's "Old Boy" is off the mark

Kyu Hyun Kim (internews)

Lee Byung-hun plays Seon-woo, an owner of a bar (named "La Dolce Vita") and a lieutenant to a gangster boss (Kim Young-chul). He is entrusted with a job of looking after the boss's very young girlfriend Hee Soo (Shin Min-ah). To Seon-woo's consternation, however, the boss also orders him to kill her (and her lover) if she ever "strays". When Seon-woo catches her red-handed, though, he cannot quite bring himself to carry out his job. He lets her go... a decision with which he now puts his own life at risk.

The first half of the film advances with a languorous rhythm of a sleepy-eyed cat prowling his haunts. The cinematography by Kim Jee-yong-I, gorgeously jade and golden (and later hellfire orange and scarlet) in night scenes and punctuated by silver rays of sunlight in day scenes, Ryoo Seong-hee's sets, with its mixture of chrome-and-glass glitz of the bars and restaurants and dark muddy pools of the abandoned warehouses, and the flamenco-inflected sassy score by Jang Yeong-Gyoo and Dal Pa Ran, are skillfully orchestrated by Director Kim Jee-woon in order to illustrate Seon-woo's routines, glamorous on the surface but empty inside.

In the second half, Seon-woo's escape from an impromptu muddy grave, using a cell phone battery, of all things, as a weapon of deadly assault, launches the fireworks of frantic action set pieces, culminating in the final confrontation between Seon-woo and his boss inside "La Dolce Vita:" "Why?" He berates his former boss. "Why did you try to kill me? After working like a dog for you for seven years?" For Seon-woo really did not mean to challenge the boss, or subvert his loyalty, by saving Hee Soo's life. Unlike an American noir hero's struggle with the weighty issues of morality and redemption, Seon-woo's choice to save Hee Soo is more of a gesture of recognition toward the impossible or the unattainable. As the quasi-Zen Buddhist fable that opens and closes the film hints at us, he is like a novice fakir, presented with a momentary glimpse of the enlightenment, but knows, to his ultimate sorrow, that he cannot attain it within this life.

Kim Jee-woon is an underrated actor's director and adept at eliciting wonderful performances from his stars and supporting players, and "A Bittersweet Life" is no exception. Shin Min-ah (all grown up since showing up in Kim's debut film "The Quiet Family" [1998]), Kim Young-chul, Kim Roi-Ha (memorable as a dumb cop in the murder mystery "Memories of Murder" [2003]) all give solid backup performances, but the stunning impression is made by the soft-voiced, bear-like Hwang Jung-min, brilliant in the gay-themed "Road Movie" (2002) and the controversial "A Good Lawyer's Wife" (2004), who here plays a slightly goofy but absolutely frightening thug. Hissing Korean cusswords like an angry cobra, smiling like a fat cat about to swallow a mouse and comically waddling with a hunched frame, Hwang's President Baek explodes with spine-chilling bursts of violence, reminiscent of Bobo [Not a misprint of "Bob"] Justus (Pat Hingle) in Stephen Frears' classic noir "The Grifters".

Ironically it is Seon-woo's character that, despite Lee Byung-hun's persuasive display of psychological distress, never quite gels: the conception of his character is convincing, but not his actual behavior. Director Kim is awkwardly perched on the fence between exploring Seon-woo's emotional conflict on the one hand and keeping him "cool" and inscrutable on the other. He cannot quite keep his central character as elegantly mysterious as the French master Jean-Pierre Melville did with Alain Delon's criminals in such latter-day film noir variations as "Le Samourai" and "La Cercle Rouge", which might be just as well for Lee Byung-hun fans.

Production Notes

A B.O.M Production. Distributed by CJ Entertainment. Starring Lee Byeng-heon, Kim Young-chul, Shin Min-ah, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Roe-ha, Eric Mun, Oh Dal-soo, Kim Hae-gon, Lee Moo-yeong. Written and Directed by Kim Jee-woon. 120 min.
Finally, Kim should really avoid cramming so many climaxes into a single movie, a major problem that needlessly bogged down the ending of his masterpiece "A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003). With such incredible cinematic skills at his command, Kim Jee-woon should stop acting like a teenage boy who cannot let his girlfriend go without asking for just one more good-bye kiss. He should learn to trust himself as well as his audience, and end his film where it must.

"A Bittersweet Life" is being compared to Park Chan-wook's "Old Boy" (true enough, there are a few amusing set-pieces in the film that specifically recalls Park's films) but in the end these two films are very different from one another. Most significantly, "A Bittersweet Life", despite its horrid, bloody scenes of violence, is ultimately a sweet film. It's a box of truffles, with just enough strong liqueur and spice inside its nuggets to remind us that sometimes bitterness tastes good too.

DVD Presentation:

CJ Entertainment DVD. 2-Disc Special Edition. Dual Layer. Region 3. Audio: Korean (DTS, Dolby Digital 6.1 Surround). Subtitles: Korean, English. July 2005.

The Special Edition DVD comes in an attractive slipcase that contains a standard cardboard-and-plastic 2-disc platter. Lee Byung-hun is prominently featured in all graphics, leaving no doubt as to who is the real star attraction here.

The first disc contains Director's Cut of the film. According to Kim Jee-woon, the director's cut is more tightly edited with some "excess fat" excised, except for a few major additions, including an extended, character-revealing sequence in which Seon-woo drives away from Hee Soo's house. The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen format, anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is excellent, keeping up the high standard we are used to seeing for Region 3 releases from major Korean companies, in this case CJ Entertainment. The encoding bit rate is very high, and the technically complex lighting and subtle color schemes are reproduced with great fidelity.

There are two commentary tracks, both with Director Kim Jee-woon. For the first track, Kim is joined by the star Lee Byung-hun and by the supporting actor Kim Young-chul. Lee Byung-hun definitely holds his own against the extremely articulate Director Kim, explaining why certain scenes (a throwaway shot near the end where he glances at an arms dealer played by Eric, for instance) were so difficult to play, contrary to Kim's directions. Kim Young-chul admires the younger performer's skillful acting but seems to think he is in a straightforwardly macho gangster film, throwing un-self-conscious quips such as "Women viewers would have difficulty understanding the relationship between [The Boss Kang] and [Seon-woo], I would say", seemingly oblivious to Director Kim's satirical jabs at the self-delusions of the film's gangster characters.

The second track is participated by DP Kim Jee-yong-I and Production Designer Ryoo Seong-hee. Considering that Kim's films almost always contain stylistic or technical innovations for Korean cinema (albeit often adapted from non-Korean movies) and are breathtakingly beautiful to look at, the contributions by these two on the relative success of the film cannot be underestimated. The commentary track is a bit dry but is highly informative for anyone who wants to know the details of set design, location scouting, makeup effects and the startling use of "Body-cam" during the film's major action set pieces (Unfortunately but typically, the commentary tracks are unsubtitled and will be useless for non-Korean speakers).

The second disc opens with a spiffy menu design and unfolds to a series of short docu segments, including interviews with actors Lee, Kim Young-chul, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Roe-ha and Shin Min-ah and major staff members including composers Jang Yeong-gyoo and Dalpalan and martial arts-stunt coordinator Jung Doo-hong. Other supplements include: a docu of the cast and crew attending a screening at the Cannes Film Festival (Kim Jee-woon without burning cigarettes! Without sunglasses!), deleted and alternate scenes (the most interesting being Seon-woo's infiltration of The Boss Kang's own home), a discussion session with the select "netizens" from ( Open the link ), a DVD credit scroll accompanied by a recording session footage with Hwang Jung-min crooning the film's title song (alas, unused in the film), a music video for another song performed by Yang Pa and directed by Lee Byung-hun, and trailers and teasers. The most entertaining special feature in my view is a Q&A banter session entitled "Why Did You Do That?" where cast and staff members "get back" at Director Kim by demanding explanations for his quirky behavior and mild (and sometimes cutesy) eccentricities during the production.

Even though Lee Byung-hun dominates the glossy packaging, content-wise the Special Edition supplements are unquestionably geared toward Director Kim Jee-woon's directorial vision, supporting the observation that many of the commercial successes in South Korea remain strongly director-centered projects.

Kyu Hyun Kim is Associate Professor of Japanese and Korean History, University of California, Davis.

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