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A Bittersweet Life (film review)

Posted on August 29, 2010 at 11:05 AM

A Bittersweet Life (Ji-woon, 2005) is a South Korean gangster flick that manages to transcend its own genre. Like John Woo’s The Killer, it is firmly routed in revenge/action territory, but just when you think you’ve got the film pegged, it springs into these moments of pure poetry. “Crime opera” may be a more suitable term to describe it, as the film combines stunning cinematography and gorgeous choreographed fight scenes, with one of the most mesmerizing film scores in recent memory. It all unfolds within a revenge tale that aspires to Shakespearian levels of melodrama.


The narrative is deceptively simple, as we are introduced to the tough, but thoughtful, restaurant manager-cum-mob enforcer, Sun-woo. Like the film, Sun is effortlessly cool, drenched in style and able to unleash a brutal beat-down whenever necessary. The first half of the film follows him around the back-alleys, warehouses, and highways of Saul, as he shadows the boss’s girlfriend, who is expected of being unfaithful. The actor Lee Byung-hun delivers a very restrained performance; and is difficult to read in the films early parts, but once the action kicks off his stoic nature begins to unravel into something quite extraordinary.


The star of this film, however, is the score. Composer Jang Yeong-gyu has crafted an absolutely dazzling array of instrumental pieces, which grab the viewer by the heart and refuse to let go. I’m man enough to say that “Romance” and “Fairness” are two of the most beautiful tracks I’ve heard in film, and had me close to tears.


Kim Jo-woon is just another director to keep an eye on in South Korea’s recent cinematic renaissance. Park Can Wook and Bong Joon Ho are two more directors to keep an eye in the nations exciting cinematic transformation. A Bittersweet Life may seem bound by the conventions of the revenge genre, but it executes those tropes with an infectious energy and style, and at times manages to portray true depth and beauty in its protagonist.

Categories: ARTICLES, Cinema

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