A Bittersweet Life

Starring: Lee Byung Hun, Kim Young Chul and Shin Mina
Tartan Asia Extreme
RRP: 19.99
TVD 3598
Certificate: 18
Available 24 April 2006

Kim Sunwoo has been dead inside for a long time. Spending his time as a hotel manager Sunwoo holds a cold secret, he is the enforcer for a local crime boss Kang. Sunwoo moves through his life feeling nothing, he neither feels love or hate, killing without conscious; it seems that nothing can intrude on Sunwoo's world, not even beauty. That is until one day his boss, whose weakness is young women, asks him to keep tabs on his latest girlfriend. When he finds her with another man he's sure he should kill her but something about her has uncovered feelings which have been long buried. When he refuses to carry out Kang's death sentence he is set on an irrevocable course which can only lead to his death or Kang's...

2005 saw a significant resurgence in Korean cinema. Not only was it the release year for A Bittersweet Life but it also saw the release of the excellent Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Welcome to Dongmakgol. Only your personal choice will determine which of these films is the better. There is little doubt that A Bittersweet Life is violent, but someone who has been so emotionally shutdown is likely to become a victim of his own passion

The movie is written and directed by Kim Jee-Woon. It opens with a black and white shot of a willow tree; slowly colour fades in, flooding the blossoms with vibrant life, we clearly hear the voice of Sunwoo over the top of the scene asking:

"On a clear spring day, a disciple looked at some branches blowing in the wind, and asked: 'Master, is it the branches that are moving, or the wind?' Without even looking to where his pupil was pointing, the teacher smiled and said: 'That which moves is neither the branches nor the wind, it is your heart and mind.'".

This sequence encompasses the main theme of the film as Sunwoo, through an unrequited love for the woman of his boss, has his emotions slowly awakened. But emotions are a dangerous thing. Great love may be awakened, but so too great hate - hate enough to kill.

Lee Byung Hun, who plays Sunwoo, does very well in the role, initially portraying Sunwoo's inner coldness. We see in him the first stirrings of emotion, before all hell breaks loose when his boss finds out that he didn't kill the girl and her lover. The film never really reconciles whether it's better to be a cold blooded killer or a passionate one. Regardless, his portrayal will have you on the edge of your seat for all of the two hours that the film runs to. The rest of the cast, to a man and woman, also hand in sterling performances.

One of the things that you shouldn't miss about this film is that, whilst it's very violent and well deserving of its eighteen certificate, it's also very funny. Cinematography, by Kim Ji Yong, is unrelentingly gorgeous, with an interesting use of the earthen colours of green and brown, which is juxtaposed with the city scenes which are all cold blacks, primary colours and chrome. The score, by Jang Young Gyu and Dal Pa Ran, is an oddly eclectic mix of Spanish and Italian music, which ties it nicely into the great tradition of American gangster films and spaghetti westerns.

Audio options on the disc are very good; you can plump for stereo, 5.1 or DTS, but if you have the equipment this really should be heard in DTS. Print is great with no obvious flaws. On the extras front we have Cast & Crew Interview with a respectable running time of twenty-one minutes. We also get A Bittersweet Life in Cannes, which shows the cast and crew all looking a little bemused, but also show just how far Korean movie making has come in grabbing the western psyche. It's a short piece that runs at seven minutes long. Lastly, we have the Original Theatrical Trailer and some Asian Extreme trailers. So what happened to the commentary tracks that appeared on the original DVD?

Overall, this is a stylish, violent and unremitting movie and another gem in the Tartan Asia Extreme range. Although it's well worth an afternoon of anyone's time, it's a shame the extras didn't do the film justice. I'll say it again, as Hollywood turns out more wooden rubbish you really have to look to Asian and the independent sector for cutting edge story telling.

Charles Packer

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