Kim Jee-Woon is one of South Korea's more interesting directors, working in different genres at a uniform level of excellence. His "A Tale of Two Sisters" is a ghost story in the "Ring" tradition, while "The Quiet Family" is a black comedy about a Korean version of the Addams family that moves to the country to run a bed and breakfast. When guests feel inspired one after another to commit suicide in the house, they work overtime to conceal the bodies.
"A Bittersweet Life," his latest, was included in this year's Asian Film Festival in New York. It is a gangster noir in the John Woo tradition that includes familiar elements: a mob enforcer with a conscience, vendettas that spiral out of control and choreographed fight scenes.
In the topsy-turvy world of the Korean underworld, tragedy ensues when a hero decides to act morally. A tragic flaw in this world is not murder, but the refusal to commit murder. Like Huck Finn, who decides to help a runaway slave in defiance of all that is "good" in a slave society, the hero of "A Bittersweet Life" only decides to buck the system as a last resort.
Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee) is a mob enforcer who has been ordered by his boss Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim), the owner of a hotel called "La Dolce Vita" (!), to keep an eye on his young girl-friend, an accomplished cellist, while he is out of town. If she cheats on him, he must kill her and the lover.
In keeping with Sun-woo's tightly-wound and taciturn character, he does not reveal his growing fondness for the boss's girl-friend either to her or to himself. Despite his rather soft features, he is the quintessential warrior who lives only to serve his boss and to fight. When he eventually discovers the lover at the girl-friend's house, he cannot bring himself to killing them. He only beats up the lover and warns them never to see each other again. To his astonishment, she lashes out at him even though he has spared her life. Since he has never been in love himself, nor even had much experience with women, his surprise is understandable.
When Kang discovers that his underling has disobeyed his orders, he sends out a hit squad to get rid of him. This leads to an escalating series of show-downs that finally culminates in a rousing gun-battle that will more than satisfy any fan of this genre. The main problem with "A Bittersweet Life" is the inability of the main character to express any emotion beyond a desire for revenge. Unlike some of John Woo's memorable heroes, usually played by the gifted Yun-Fat Chow, Sun-woo is a one-dimensional killing machine. In a John Woo film, a relationship would have developed between the enforcer and the girl-friend but Kim Jee-Woon seems much more interested in combat than in human relationships.
This is not to say that such relationships do not occur. There are strong ties between Sun-woo and the boss Kang, who functions as a kind of father figure. At the climax of the film, as Sun-woo holds a gun to the chest of Kang, there is a moment when it seems that he will spare his life out of filial feelings. That does not last, however.
In the concluding moments of the film, Soon-woo reflects on his life: "One morning, the disciple had a dream and woke up in tears. The master came into his room and asked, 'Did you have a sad dream?' The disciple replied, 'No, I did not have a sad dream' The master then asked, 'Then why do you weep in such sorrow?' The disciple replied, 'Because it is a dream that will never come true.'"
If "A Bittersweet Life" ever makes it to a theater in your city, it is definitely worth seeing. Although Hollywood has an undeserved reputation for making action movies, Asian cinema is the place to go for sheer visceral entertainment.