A Bittersweet Life (2005) Poster

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Spectacular-South Korea does it again
mmeyers-411 February 2006
This masterpiece comes from the director of Tales of Two Sisters and he delivers an epic tale of revenge.

I can't urge you enough to see this movie. The gun battles are reminiscent of Scarface, the martial arts are gritty and realistic, the poignancy of unrequited love is painful, there is a deep philosophical current that underlies this film, and the camera work is superb-but that's not what carries the movie. The actor who plays the main character is what sets this magnificent movie apart from the trash put out by Hollywood. He's a man's man-sharply dressed in well tailored suits driving in a BMW sedan (like the transporter)through beautiful Seoul (showing what a beautiful, spotless, and vibrant city it is). He reaches the point of no return and his vengeance and determination are a tour de force.

Magnificent. Bravo. South Korean films reign supreme.
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My interpretations to clear up some confusion
sugarbomber8 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is one of the best films I've seen in my life, with beautiful cinematography, excellent acting, and most importantly, a great script. It's sad to see that some of you are too busy critiquing the lack of complexity in the plot, because it is this simplicity that makes this movie so beautiful.

Since many of you have already reiterated the plot, i'll just cut the chase and try to clear up some confusion, hopefully.

First of all, to understand why he let the girl go and turns against his boss, the flashback towards the end is very crucial. When she plays the cello, he smiles, and as he is dying, he smiles as he listens to her voice. These are the only two occasions in which he smiles throughout the entire movie. Whether this is love, attraction, or because he was thankful that she made him feel good, is open to interpretation. Given that he is an extremely straightforward and honest character(and also given that in this movie, everything is what you see on the screen- there are no hidden motives, twists, whatsoever), I assume that the reason he doesn't answer (or CAN'T answer) when asked why he did it by his boss is because he doesn't know himself.

I think the key to understanding this movie is the title, and the narration at the end of the movie (something along the line of a disciple telling his master that he cries after a sweet dream because he knows it can't come true). For Sunwoo,the girl and his belief(?) that he can kill everyone else and still live are sweet dreams that cannot come true. The reason why he unrealistically gets by after getting shot and stabbed so much, is not simply because he is the main character, but because everything he does after meeting the girl is like a sweet 'dream', a surreal reality(yes, an oxymoron, just like the title- a 'bittersweet' life). The morbid ending is also very fitting- as sweet as the dream was, the more bitter it is when he "wakes up" from it and faces reality(once again relating to the last narration).
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Chandler meets Woo in a Grind House
genrebusters6 August 2005
I could sit here and start this review off any number of ways to make this film sound ultra important. I could say, once in a great while a film comes along, blah, blah. Or, Only a select few films ever have reached this, blah, blah. Or I could say, if you see one movie this year, blah, blah. You know the drill. These are the opening sentences the big-boy critics use when they really want you to see a flick and when they want a particular review to really stand out. Well, films that deserve this kind of "special" praise really do only come around once in a great while. Unbelievably, I have seen two in only six months time. The first was what I like to call the first real 21st Century film, and that was Oldboy. And the second film of this status also comes from Korea, believe it or not, and it is Bittersweet Life.

Bittersweet Life is probably one of the most simple, most streamlined modern films I have ever seen. It is lean, mean, and like its lead male, a damn ruthless fighting machine. The film beats along with its Raymond Chandler-like screenplay with all the jazz and style of early 90's John Woo and with the energy and themes of Quentin Tarantino's grind house 70's. Life plays with your emotions, making you care for the bad-guy hero even though he is a vicious killer, and causes one to release tension through laughter when the blood starts gushing like a dozen ruptured fire hoses. Wholesale death, blood by the gallons, broken bones and multiple beatings with humongous pipe-wrenches, two-by-fours, and lead pipes are on order, right after a heaping dish of innocent love and a guy trying for once to do the right thing.

The plot, well you see, it's like this: you can see everything coming a mile away, the movie plays it straight, and follows the exact path you know it will and the exact path you hope it will. There are no twist endings, no complicated triple crosses, no hidden motives for the characters. Everything on screen happens the way you see it, and everything thing ends exactly the way you picture it. And this is a good thing. The film is so on track that it doesn't need a twist or a swerve to make you pay attention. It starts at A, ends at E, and hits B, C and D on the way there. Life is so steeped in its genre tropes of noir character and themes that the ending is know to all of us before it even starts. However, it's the journey that matters, and I'll be damned if you can find a better-looking, more brutally violent journey anywhere.

As much as I try to analyze the film, nothing comes to mind. And this is the purest of all compliments. The film is as shallow as the pools of blood splattered in the hallways, alleyways and run down exteriors of the sets. Often times a director feels the need to bog a simple story down with twists, and a deeper meaning to hide the fact that they are afraid to just let things happen because they need to happen. Bittersweet Life is not one of these films. It exists with its soul laid bare for all to see, and when the carnage is complete, you thank the film for being honest with itself. As the final credits roll you might find yourself asking, "Is that it?" Yes, that is it—cinematic perfection. It is all it needs to be: pure and simple, boisterous and calm, bloody and drenched in gore and an honest movie with nothing to hide.

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Musashi Zatoichi8 July 2005
For director Kim Jee-woon, humor is a basic element of films. And he says no matter how dark and moody it may seem, his new film ''A Bittersweet Life (Talkomhan Insaeng)¡¯¡¯ is no exception.

''This movie basically deals with relationship breakups resulting from small communication breakdowns,¡¯¡¯ Kim said during a news conference Monday after the preview screening of ''A Bittersweet Life.¡¯¡¯ Without calling it comedy exactly, sometimes audiences have to laugh at very serious or ironic situations, Kim said.

Kim has shown his unique morbid sense of humor in previous movies such as ''The Quiet Family,¡¯¡¯ a black comedy about a family who kill visitors to their cottage, ''The Foul King,¡¯¡¯ a comic drama about an amateur wrestler, and one horror contribution work for the omnibus film ''Three.¡¯¡¯ Kim is also behind ''A Tale of Two Sisters,¡¯¡¯ the psychological horror film that became a summer hit in 2003.

''A Bittersweet Life,¡¯¡¯ starring Lee Byung-hun from ''Everybody Has a Little Secret¡¯¡¯ and Shin Mina from ''Madeleine,¡¯¡¯ portrays the desperate and brutal revenge of Sun-woo (played by Lee) after he is expelled from his gang and comes close to being killed by his boss.

Lee Byung-hun is a hit-man who falls for the girlfriend of his boss in the stylishly violent ¡°A Bittersweet Life.¡± Conventional ideas of causation are put into doubt in director Kim Jee-woon's twist on film noire. ''A Bittersweet Life (Talkomhan Insaeng)'' is what Korean critics are describing as ''Action Noire.'' In it, he tweaks the traditional Korean gangster story line, presenting a work with film noire undertones and stylish cinematography.

Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a revenging dark angel dressed in black. Gang leader Kang (Kim Young-cheol) assigns Sun-woo, his right-hand man, to watch after his nubile girlfriend/professional cellist Hee-soo (Shin Mina) while he is away and find out about the other guy with whom he suspects she is messing around.

The plot is complicated by Sun-woo's existential decision to stray from the explicit instructions with which he is charged. He is cryptically told time and again to make good on a promise, but he never exactly know what that is.

Much of the action occurs in the long shadows the sprawling megapolis Seoul casts. Here, the gangsters wish they were too cool to be killed. No friend can really be trusted as the good guys are not so good and the bad guys can be down right evil. Importantly, the motivation of his tormentors is shrouded in mystery.

But the movie has been labeled ''action noire'' for a good reason. The stylistic ultra-violence of director Kim is superb. The creepy fisherman killer represents a unique Korean twist on the classic film noire villain. Our hero is not a good, good guy either, and I loved that about him. He is not only tough, but also a stone-face killer _ a tribute to both the director and actor's character interpretation.

After all, gangsters should fight to kill, and that means sometimes going for the knees and other joints, hitting low and dirty to take the guy out quick. In general, the fight scenes were creative. Watch for the face-dragged-across-the-cinderblock-wall scene, perhaps a first for cinematic violence.
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Another breathtaking revenge movie from South-Korea
raweater14 August 2005
I had the luck to watch this gem at the Fantasy-Film-Festival in Frankfurt yesterday. It was shown in a theater with about 600 seats and against my expectations the room was packed with people.

In comparison with Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance the story is not as deep and goes more straightforward to the pure revenge theme. But this does not make the movie less enjoyable. The cinematography is brilliant and the main-character delivers a great performance. It contains beautifully choreographed martial-arts and gunfight scenes with references to masterpieces like Taxi Driver and Kill Bill.

Despite the fact it is very harsh in some scenes the humor does not come to short. The scene with a discussion of Korean-Russian wannabe-gangsters made me nearly wet my pants.
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The coolest movie I have ever seen
taylorb122119 November 2013
This is my first review on here, only because I felt compelled to tell someone about this film… When I say "coolest," I don't mean it in a that-movie-was-really-cool kind of way… Coolest, in this case, means that it is the smoothest, well-crafted, stylish, and beautiful films I have ever seen. Everything about the film has a you'll-never-be-this-cool feel, like Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction. Not to mention the fact that it has the same sort of humor.

Now, I am a film student who has actually gotten a lot of praise from students and teachers and whatnot for my first film project… That's great and all, but after seeing this film I am reminded of what Steven Spielberg said after he saw The Godfather; "I guess I should quit now, because I will never make something this good." I am, in no way, comparing myself to Spielberg, I'm just describing the feeling of, "holy s***, this is amazing," and "wow, I could never do this ever…"

See this movie before you die… Or before it gets remade.
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A truly excellent movie!
siapanta-13 June 2006
I had the opportunity to watch this brilliant movie at home, while translating it from English to Greek for the viewers of the Thessaloniki Film Festival in November, 2005.

I was impressed by the stunning performance of the leading actor, as well as of the other actors. The music of the film was also wisely selected.

Some -few- funny moments in the film help the viewer lighten up and get ready for what I saw as brilliantly directed fighting scenes, that neither bored me nor made me look away.

At the end of the film, when the desciple was crying for "a dream that can never come true" I was absolutely sure that what I saw was nothing less than a true work of art.
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'Jin Shim' (truth-fully)
Wolf Cub20 September 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Everything is believable, from the small things like the way in which the main character first falls in love with his boss's girlfriend because of the delicate curve of her neck and the way the main character fumbles with a gun for the first time while he tries to put it together, to the theme of revenge that this films is propelled by.

The main character (Sun-Woo) has lived most of his life serving his 'Hyong-Nim' (Korean for boss in the gangster underworld). He has in fact dedicated 7 years of his life to him, taking care of the dirty work his dirty work. His boss (Mr.Kang) sees Sun-Woo as one of his most trusted 'Ah-Ho' (Korean for underling), and this is where you recognised that family-based element of the gangster underworld. In Korea, the society is largely based on a strict hierarchal system, where you must respect your elders and demand respect from people younger than you. Although right now, Korea is slowly moving away from convention and traditions, the underworld of gangs stills strictly upholds this hierarchal system. The theme of revenge stems from this, as Mr.Kang feels like a betrayed father, with his underling, Sun-Woo protects his boss's girlfriend from getting caught cheating. Mr. Kang follows the protocol of the underworld and decides to punish Sun-Woo who has been like a son to him. Before Sun-Woo suffers the punishment, Mr.Kang asks him why did he betray him, to which Sun-Woo replies, "I thought if she promised never to cheat on you, everything would be back to normal... I thought everything would be OK." To this, Mr.Kang says, "No, its OK, tell me the truth... It's because you fell for her, isn't it?" Sun-Woo cannot lie as he stays silent, confused. As he kneels down in the mud in this scene, you see on the main characters face the realisation that after all this time of never falling in love with anyone, the one girl that turned his head was his boss's girlfriend. Earlier in the movie, there is a scene where Mr.Kang and Sun-Woo have dinner together as father and son in a family of the underworld, where Mr.Kang says that he hates being lied to and that if Sun-Woo caught his young girlfriend cheating, that Sun-Woo should kill her. Mr.Kang contradicts himself here, as he is in fact married with a wife who he is cheating on by being with this new younger girlfriend. Mr.Kang believes that in the underworld of gangsters, if your boss says something and he is wrong, you must still agree and follow his lead. There is a Japanese gangster saying, "If your boss says black is white and white is black, you must agree. If he says there is no sky, then to you there is no sky." Mr.Kang punishes Sun-Woo for what he says is betrayal of the code of master and disciple hierarchy. Sun-Woo almost loses his life as he refuses to be punished, fighting against gangsters that he was once the general of. This is where the main character's 'Hamlet-styled' contemplation of revenge takes place. As the story shows the audience Sun-Woo breaking away from tradition and convention by refusing punishment set down by his elder, we also see the main character breaking away from the tradition of close quarter combat as he tries to acquire firearms. To the main character, his boss's actions confuse him. Sun-Woo spent 7 years of his life serving Mr.Kang, and in the final scene Sun-Woo confronts Mr.Kang with this fact. Sun-Woo screams, "I rotted away serving you for 7 years! Were you really going to kill me?!" To Sun-Woo, Mr.Kang's actions were too severe. Ironically, this time its Sun-Woo asking Mr.Kang "No, its OK, tell me the truth... Tell me why you really tried to kill me." At this moment, we see that Mr.Kang chose to punish Sun-Woo, not because he wanted to uphold the law of the underworld, but because he was simply jealous of Sun-Woo, of Sun-Woo's youth. Mr.Kang's reason for cheating on his own wife with a younger woman may also suggest Mr.Kang's thirst for youth. Sun-Woo points pistol at his own boss, his father his mentor and I truly expected him not to fire, but I was totally wrong. As Mr.Kang's character may symbolize tradition and convention, Sun-Woo strikes him down as a unpredictable force of chaos and revolution. The way in which we try and control our lives could be seen as the convention of the hierarchal system where humans try to uphold peace and order. Through the main character, this story depicts how bullshit the 'system' is and that life can prove to be utter chaos the more we try to control it and bring order to it. The most powerful scene in this movie I thought was really breathtaking was the final scene where after having been shot numerous times and barely breathing, the main character calls the girl he has recently fallen for. As she picks up, he drops the phone and can only hear her voice. Comforted only by her voice saying "Yeo Boh Sae Yo?" (Korean way of asking who is it on the phone) he looks up to see wind blowing in the leaves of a tree. He then seems to be lost in a dream, in his final moments of living. But then his dream is cut very shot, ALL OF A SUDDEN by a single shot to his head. It almost as if he was dreaming and then woke up to see his life, to see nothing.
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Entertaining enough, if not quite a Ji-woon Kim masterpiece
Chris_Docker20 August 2005
After Tale of Two Sisters, Ji-woon Kim's new movie has been eagerly anticipated. In his previous film, the marks of originality, intellectual challenge and superb visual style hailed the possibility of a brave new voice in Korean cinema.

A Bittersweet Life commences with similarly awesome photography and ambiance. The wind in the leaves of a tree - Is it the leaves or the wind that moves? asks the disciple of the master. Neither, he replies, it is your mind and heart that moves. Cut to La Dolce Vita, the swish bar restaurant which we are to discover is also the gangland stronghold of Sun-Woo. A single tree in the centre of the restaurant's sky lounge. The colours red and black, glossy and visually forceful in the lounge - they not only play heavily in the film but make any small deviations stand out. Lushness or delicacy is easily conveyed later in the film by colour, a respite to the bloodshed that will almost swamp us. A tinkling piano (Chopin is used as part of the score) adds a delicate counterpoint to what we know will surely be an overload of violence and mayhem.

Sun-Woo has served his boss, President Kang, faithfully for seven years and is now manager of Dolce Vita as well as Kang's right hand man. Background profits, and gang competition, focuses on innocuous little sidelines like the supply of guns or dancing girls, and which countries these should come from. Kang has a secret lover from the 'normal' world, a cellist who is much younger than he, and whom he suspects of infidelity. Kang entrusts Sun-Woo to sort it out and show no mercy. The warfare that follows goes beyond honour, beyond profit, beyond vengeance, . . . beyond any rational point in fact.

Sun-Woo is the ultimate cool bad guy. Indentured to a world of violence and expert in the use of martial arts, knives and guns, he is almost a humanised Bruce Lee who's woken up on a Tarantino set. It sounds almost too good to be true and it is. The story lines are formulaic and derivative, consisting largely of how to engineer more ingenious punch-ups, torture or revenge posturing. Light humour afforded in the contrast between suave topdogs and bumbling henchmen has been done so many times, and many of the entertaining debacles could have been borrowed from Kill Bill. But entertaining it is, on an undemanding level. Sadly it is not the work of the Master that we might have expected from Two Sisters. "The dream I had can't come true," laments the protagonist, and ironically the dreams Ji-woon Kim's fans may justifiably had don't quite come true in A Bittersweet Life, but this otherwise elegant shoot-em-up is still reasonable 'boys night out' night fare.
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Punished for doing the right thing
Shawn Watson31 May 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Sun-Woo is the manager of sleek modern restaurant in uptown Seoul called La Dolce Vita, but that's not his only employment. He is also the errand-boy of underworld Kingpin Mr Kang. A job he fulfils ruthlessly and efficiently, until the day Mr Kang takes off for a week, leaving Sun-Woo to mind his much younger girlfriend Hee-Soo to make sure she doesn't sleep around. If she does, he is to execute both of them. Hee-Soo cheats. Sun-Woo almost sentences them to death, but has a sober moment and realises that letting them go is the right thing to do.

In Mr Kang's absence a rival crime syndicate, headed by President Baek and his over-confident son is becoming more and more impatient to force a business merger with Kang. Despite Kang's reluctance to go through with this deal one of his own men, Sun-Woo's cohort, Min-Gi welcomes the business with Baek and his son and complicates matters.

Upon Kang's return he figures out Sun-Woo's failure to carry out his orders and demands he be killed unless he apologises. At this moment, Sun-Woo is about to be tortured to death by Baek Jr. but is returned to Kang on the promise that he will do business.

It's out of the frying pan and into the deepest pits of fiery hell for Sun-Woo. Already bashed and bruised and beaten he is cast down in the mud during a heavy rainstorm and forced to apologise. He resists. His hand is crushed with a massive wrench he is buried alive.

He survives and breaks through the loose soil. Sun-Woo and the audience breathe a sigh of relief. But it's far from over. Min-Ji and a large group of thugs are still waiting by the shallow grave. They drag him into a old building and give him 15 minutes to call Mr. Kang and beg for his life. Still he refuses. And when those 15 minutes are up Sun-Woo unleashes an incredibly lethal and jaw-droppingly furious ass-kicking like you have never seen. He goes through about 20 men like they weren't even there and dishes out agonising, blood-soaked punishment in one of the most nail-biting escapes you'll ever see.

It's now time for Sun-Woo to plan his revenge. And that he does with lovingly violent detail.

A Bittersweet Life comes in 3 large acts that make the 120-minute running time pass in a breeze. The set-up and story are so simple and honest that you can literally start-watching the film at any point and still become immersed in the action. But, I feel that many viewers may be missing the twist at the end.

By 'twist' I mean after Sun-Woo's death the film goes back to the beginning, revealing that he only fantasised the whole thing. He says the cruelty of any sweet dream is waking up to find yourself back in the real world. He is still in his restaurant and when no one is looking, insecurely looking over his shoulder to make sure, Sun-Woo shadow boxes for fun or curiosity. Hardly the kind of behavior you would expect from a man who has just annihilated 50 baddies.

But, regardless of the final outcome, it's the high-octane journey you take to get there that really matters right? And A Bittersweet Life is one movie you'll want to watch over and over again.
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Leone inspired ...
kosmasp3 July 2007
... but not only. At the beginning there is a clear homage to a french movie (an almost exactly reconstructed camera move/set-up)! But this movie is more than just the sum of it's parts! And the clue is in the beginning ...

A Korean friend of mine told me (Randy N.) that the story reminded him very much of a tale, the "Tale of "Jo-Shin" (Dream of Jo-shin)" or again in his words "This tale is one of the most famous Korean tale(And there are many similar tale in Asian culture...)."

So if you listen to the monologue at the beginning and at the end, you will get the movie and what it means. Because this is more than just an action flick. But don't worry, there's plenty of action here to enjoy also. Maybe even too much action for some to stomach! Not for the faint of heart, believe me, or for those who can't stand the sight of blood! It's very philosophical and it has action in it. Highly recommended!
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Life is bittersweet...
sandgbingham29 April 2006
When you sit back to watch this film, be prepared for a film that will open your mind,a film that will make you question humanity, and be prepared to be floored by a visual masterpiece which is rare by gangster movie standards.

From the first few shots we are feasted with beautiful shots, angles and little references that are simply delightful. The story unfolds showing the brighter side of life, the sweet side if you like. This is portrayed by Sunwoo eating a desert in the opening scene and then more food as the first half continues. The film then plays out to its darker half and we are shown the bitter side of life, which i wont go into and destroy for you.

Everything about this film just...Works, even the martial arts scenes are well edited and seem clever, rather than tricking us with quick camera cuts, we get a raw and violent slice of brutal gangster revenge, which again simply delights in a strange bitter way.

Simply put, A bittersweet life is simple plot, filmed and played exactly how it is meant to be, exactly how you want it to be. Every scene is fresh with humour or suspense which is so rare by todays standards.

This films plays out exactly how you want it to, with the exact camera angles it should, with the perfect music to back it all up. This film is a dark and visual spectacle that must be seen to be believed.

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Absolutely perfect
casanova_tester7 February 2006
This was possibly the greatest film I have ever seen. It was superb on so many different levels. The script, the fighting, the special effects all mould the perfect film. Within the first ten minutes i knew this film was going to keep me on the edge of my seat. I have never been so excited by action scenes before and never laughed with so much shock at the extent of brutal fighting. It is a genre of its own as it has none of that Hollywood business where the bad guys always fail and the main character is invincible and although love is a factor it is not overplayed. This film is electrifying to say the very least. It has more fist action than all the ROCKYs put together, more blood than Goodfellas and is as exciting if not more than a Tarantino film.
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Another quality movie from Korea
keuhkokala1 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
South Korea has lately been raised as the promised land of cool action movies. And not without a good reason. Oldboy showed us how surprising, daring and gritty Korean movies can be. A Bittersweet life fits the formula otherwise, except its story is age old.

An assassin is hired by a gang boss to find out if the gang boss's girlfriend is having an affair with another man. If so, the assassin has to kill both of them. But, as it happens, the assassin falls in love with the girlfriend himself. With violent results. And then he goes out to revenge. In Hollywood, they probably would've made a boring Steven Seagal movie, that follows the same pattern seen a million times already. But in Korea even an old story like this can be made to look cool and refreshing. The result is so good, you can feel it in your stomach. It all works out fine. The actors, the action, the direction. Even the love story is oddly touching. Highly recommended especially to those, who haven't yet seen any korean action movies.


The best part: (minor SPOILER)

The race to load guns at the Russian arms dealer
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One of the best Korean films ever!
George Clarke1 July 2014
I first bought A Bittersweet Life not knowing what to expect, but was already in love with Korean cinema!

I hadn't heard of its star Jeong-min Hwang, and the DVD wasn't giving away much. Then I watched it. And I was blown away!

A Bittersweet Life quickly jumped to the top of my re-watch pile and I was telling everyone I knew about this awesome movie.

Leading star, Jeong-min Hwang is Korea's Chow Yun Fat without a doubt. Handsome, fantastic actor, and great at action (further seen in his Hollywood debut - the p*ss poor GI Joe movies), Hwang is a star!

His role in A Bittersweet Life just confirms that, and instantly earns him fans as viewers become hooked by him in this incredible film.

I can't praise it enough and don't want to give anything away. Just see it before Hollywood remakes it and no doubt messes that one up too!
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A Masterwork of Korean Cinema.
massaster76018 July 2007
Warning: Spoilers
After seeing thousands of Asian films, the tendency for the average viewer is to become jaded. How many revenge movies can one see until the premise get's old? How many Asian "shocks" does it take before being the jolts become normal? That being said, every once in a while, a film comes along that rejuvenates my faith in Asian cinema. A film that takes the simple and tired old formula and spins it into a masterpiece of epic proportions. A Bittersweet Life is one of those films. A masterwork of Korean Cinema that doesn't fail to impress even the most jaded viewer and at the same time, doesn't leap into a formulaic revenge flick.

The story is simple, Kim Sunwoo is an enforcer for a Korean Mob Boss Mr. Kang. One day, Mr. Kang announces that he'll be leaving for a few days and asks Kim if he'll watch over his mistress while he's gone. Mr. Kang suspects that his mistress has taken another lover and asks Kim to watch over her, and if he happens to catch her in the act, to immediately call him or "take care of them". Kim eventually does catch the mistress cheating with another young man. Instead of following his boss' wishes, Kim decides to let them go. When the boss comes back and realizes he's been lied to he tries to have Kim killed. He is unsuccessful and soon all hell breaks loose.

A Bittersweet Life is a masterpiece of contemporary Korean Cinema, on par with that of Park-Chan Wook's Oldboy and Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder. The central reason for this, would obviously be Kim Ji-Woon's expert direction. Just as he revitalized the Korean Horror genre with a Tale of Two Sisters, he does so with the Korean Gangster flick in A Bittersweet Life. Kim Ji Y also does an excellent job bringing Kim Ji's vision to life and many of the shots in the film border on breathtaking. In particular, the shots filmed in the rain, of exiled Sunwoo, surrounded by a cloud black umbrella's held by Mr. Kang's syndicate are incredible.

Another of the film's big strengths is the score. The film's music features Spanish-inspired guitar pieces, techno, pseudo classical violin pieces, and jazzy/salsa influenced guitar riffs and all work perfectly with the film ever changing moods. Indeed, the film's music is almost as important to the whole package as Byung-hun Lee superb performance.

And speaking of Byung-hun Lee, he really is the glue that holds the production together. Towards the beginning of the film he plays the role of Sunwoo as a very quiet and subdued, almost pathetic (except for when he has to kick some major ass, which he does in style) but an event about halfway through the film hardens him and he is resurrected into a monster of sorts, one hell-bent on revenge for his former boss.

Oh, and who could forget the action? A Bittersweet Life is full of hard, brutal action (the kind I love so much). The film's action is spread liberally throughout the film, unlike much of the other Korean Gangster films which usually only have spattering of violence here and there. Jung Doo Hong's action scenes are no nonsense. There's no flashy Kung-Fu sequences, just brutal realistic fights and gun-play (although, some of it is a bit over the top). The last 20 minutes of the film features a balls to the wall finale, as Sunwoo singlehandedly takes on the entire syndicate in a sequence strongly reminiscent of Brian Depalma's Scarface.

Bottom Line- A Bittersweet Life is an unabashed masterpiece of Korean Cinema.
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A slick and stylish revenge drama.
BA_Harrison4 December 2006
Very stylish and very bloody, A Bittersweet Life may not be the 'classic' that some have hailed it to be, but it is a very good addition to the Asian gangster genre that is well worth watching. Director Kim Jee-Woon has given us a gripping tale of revenge that treads a well worn path, yet does it with enough panache and style for us to forgive the occasional cliché.

Byung-hun Lee plays Sun-woo, cooler-than-cool right-hand man to crime boss Kang, and manager of a swish hotel. Kang asks Sun-woo to keep an eye on his young girlfriend, Hee-Soo, who he suspects is seeing another man; in the event of his suspicions proving to be true, Sun-woo is to kill the girl and her lover.

But when Sun-woo does eventually discover Hee-Soo with another man, he grants the young couple mercy. Angered at Sun-woo disobeying his orders, Kang instructs his men to hunt him down and make him pay for his treachery.

They catch him, and submit him to mental and physical torture but, before they are able to kill him, Sun-woo escapes. An extremely miffed Sun-woo then sets about exacting revenge on those responsible for trying to bump him off.

With a plot that is neither as fresh or as clever as that other recent great Korean revenge drama, Oldboy, Kim Jee Woon's movie owes a lot of its success to lead actor Byung-hun Lee who puts in a confident performance that is the epitome of cool: dressed in a snappy suit, this hard-as-nails gangster is an unflappable fellow, even faced with what seems like certain death.

As one would expect, there is plenty of violence, which slowly escalates until the inevitable final showdown between Sun-woo and Kang. These scenes are handled with aplomb and will go down well with fans of action cinema.

With an ending that is open to interpretation by the viewer, A Bittersweet Life leaves one thinking about the film long after the credits have rolled. Despite its occasional flaws and peculiarities (I still don't understand why the majority of the Korean gangsters don't have guns?), I recommend fans of Asian cinema seek this one out, before the inevitable Hollywood remake rears its ugly head.
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A Bittersweet Prose
Gigo_Satana2 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
It's seems like there is no stopping Korean cinema, as the year isn't yet over and they've already released a handful of spectacular features. Aside from Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, A Bittersweet Life was the second revenge driven film I was eagerly awaiting. I kept my expectations at a reasonable level, even though I was well aware of Kim's reputation, his eye for capturing detail and his strength at creating eerie atmosphere.

And the atmosphere here was felt right from the start. Byung-hun Lee plays Sun-woo, a hotel restaurant enforcer and a trusted henchman to a powerful crime boss. From the initial glimpse, Lee carries heavily confined mannerisms and easily achieves seriousness and believability. The action, although a bit reminiscent of the Far East style, is intense yet touches the limits of implausibility, much like the ending. I must say that it wasn't the action that held my interest at first, but Lee's character who was sharply followed by the camera through the nights of driving and contemplating. He vacantly lives from one day to next, feeling strongly disconnected from the world around him, but still manages his duties to perfection and to much praise from his boss Kang.

That's until he gets entrusted by Kang to carry out a short task involving his young mistress. The female character had some potential in the beginning as she evoked some elusive feelings in our gloomy lead, but she was abruptly shelved. The story makes the turning point as his mission goes awry, but before I was able to question the cause and effect, next came the brutally unprecedented fight between Sun-woo and the thugs. This helped the story quite a bit, since it showed how something small and avoidable could turn into something big and ugly.

This surprisingly fills approximately half of the film. The remaining time offers few black comedic elements, fistful of rapid shooting sequences and even hints at a possibility of a Mexican standoff. Not to nitpick or complain, but purely for the sake of conversing and since the movie is labeled as a "real life" actioner, there are moments when you think just why weren't these gangsters carrying guns at so many instances? And no, I didn't ask the same question with Kill Bill.

In the beginning of the film, Sung-woo recited; "Master, are the branches moving or is it the wind?" - "That which moves is neither the branches or the wind...It's your heart and mind". I'm no expert at this or a big fan of decoding messages, but I think that it could simply mean that Sung-woo (or the audience) never meant to know what specifically cradled his life into such reveries, nor was Sun-woo able find any grounds of communication with his former boss who sometimes looked at him as if he was his own son.

Regardless, could seven years of being a loyal servant to a respectful boss really have pushed both parties into such desperate measures over this? Perhaps he was too stubborn or jealous of Kang to reveal his cause, but why did he decide to help Hee-soo in the first place? Maybe he wanted her to go back to Kang and make him happy. After all, he was such a calculating person that didn't desire love. Maybe it was just because she found him boring and ethereally played cello? Sun-woo's final quote suggested his envision of a dream or its demise. He failed to achieve what he desired. I failed to fully grasp what he desired as well. Perhaps he wanted a more ambiguous finale that gangsters rarely get afforded in reality, but the one he received was pretty dubious on its own.

I ask these questions not in vain or to mercilessly critique this film, but because I genuinely wanted to know more about what drove these characters and wouldn't have minded if the movie was longer. After all it was because of Hee-soo that Sun-woo got to travel on a different path in life. If you'll omit such speculations or enhance the plot by filling in the subtleties of Sun-woo's motives then I'm sure you'll find this film very uncompromising and intense from the first reel up until the final hodgepodge of a bloodbath.

Overall this was a fairly decent noirish piece with a prosaic story, glossed by few slick action sequences that will likely get some fans rallied. Although the film shares few similarities with OldBoy, it doesn't compare nor achieves the brute straightforwardness seen in such films as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Peppermint Candy. It was stylistically directed with pleasant music and cinematography, but it ultimately left me unaffected by the underdevelopment of characters leading up to the final showdown. Maybe it was its intent to come off this way, but at the end of the day I am merely a film fan looking for characters to empathize with, be they cold hearted rapists or washed out ex silver medalists on a bad luck streak.

Nevertheless, this film is still recommended and is much better than what Hollywood puts out there most of the time. Give it a try and hopefully you'll find it more overall satisfying than I did.
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Beautiful, brutal tale of a lost man finding his true self
fertilecelluloid7 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Beautiful and brutal. Close to perfect. A hit-man, hired to watch over his boss's mistress, is unable to carry out an execution when he uncovers information concerning the mistress. As a result, he signs his own death warrant. "Bittersweet Life" is influenced by Woo's "The Killer" and "Bullet in the Head", although the pic's nihilism has stronger parallels in Johnny To's masterpiece "A Hero Never Dies". The violence is bloody and balletic, exquisitely choreographed and ultra-graphic. There is a melodramatic tone to the drama that imbues each scene with enormous tragedy. It becomes difficult to watch a man suffer so much for simply being a man. Like "Hero...", the film has many fantastique elements and can not be judged along traditional lines of dramatic logic. In one sequence, our hero escapes from a muddy grave that no average man could possibly breach. In another, our bullet-ridden hero ignores his physical disintegration in order to complete his mission. Ultimately, this is the story of a lost man who finds his true self via an act of selflessness. And the price one must pay to stand alone.
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Oh how Sweet it is!
hayatimegnune29 June 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I first stumbled upon this film from an Asian website. After its release on DVD, almost everyone on that site was discussing the main character, "the smile", and most importantly, his bittersweet life.

Starting with the film's visual aspect, it definitely sets the tone of cool, almost like the grayish gloomy tones in Le Samurai(If you loved this movie, you must see Le Samurai) by Herman Melville. His hotel room lacks emotion and appeal, just barren and simple like Sunwoo. The Dolce la Vita bar sways the mood of Sunwoo into this absurd, fragile yet dangerous atmosphere of the Korean gangs. All the blood reds, jet blacks and pure white symbolizes the world of Sunwoo to us, professionally pure yet ruthlessly violent.

The acting in this film was superb and extraordinarily done. All the characters only display primary emotions, happiness, anger, fear and dismay. I know this might turn you off as saying there is a lack of extensive creativity, in the world of thugs, creativity can not exist. Mun-Suk was damn fine as an incompetent yet super suck-up to Mr.Kang and he proved it until the end as a backstabbing usual thug. President Kang, well, he won a best supporting actor, and you'll damn get a kick out of him, his raunchy thuggish snarls to his straightforward astonishing violent attacks. Everyone else is simply brilliant and worth watching.

In terms of violence, this is the most COOOOOOOOLEST gun scenes you'll ever see. Nothing flashy pansy, this movie god damn rocked. Hurray for Lee Byung-Hun and his astonishing and amazing career, hope to see more of his movies.

A BitterSweet Life by Kim Ji-Woon, 10/10
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Extreme, but extremely linear and generally predictable
dilbertsuperman18 December 2006
This movie delivers on gangster action and torture scenes but flops on the love side of the story and the plot twists. This is a linear movie where you almost know the end before it starts and are just watching to see the details of how it goes. It's well shot, well cast but no story to speak of that would keep your attention. What I liked in this movie was some of fight scenes were a bit rough and crude and not as dance-like while others were very slick- it gave a good feel for the different ways a fight can go down.

PLOT: A man's world goes all to crap in the gangster business and he can't seem to figure out why even though the answer is so obvious. Asian fight scenes and automatic weaponry with a fetish for knives abounds. Other movies do the same thing better such as "hard boiled"- one of the classics. Sure I think that was Chinese and not Korean but.. hey.. bullets is bullets.
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A Nutshell Review: A Bittersweet Life
DICK STEEL6 September 2005
This is a revenge movie, pure and simple. When it comes to this genre, the protagonist usually has some injustice (loosely used here) done unto him, and therefore unleashes hell upon those who incurred his wrath, who of course, failed to finish him off in the first place.

Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a hotel manager. Or so he seems. On the surface, he's calm, cool and collected. But step out of line, he brings upon his fury without remorse, and without sympathy. His cockiness earns him no admirers, but he gives his utmost loyalty towards his boss, President Kang.

He leads a lonely existence without friends, and in his latest mission, strikes a forbidden friendship with his prey that led to his ostracizing from the clan he belongs to. Relying on his personal judgement, in contradiction with his boss's, he consciously interpreted his mission ambiguously, and this led to his downfall. In the mob, as a servant, you do not think, but carry out orders like a faithful dog. Such is his life for seven years, until now.

As with revenge films, those who go against you must die, and you soon find yourself up against impossible odds, and with incredible luck. At times the movie stretches its realism to the limit, but for the purpose of good violent fun. The violence is gratuitous - shootings up close, bleeding by the buckets, hand-breaking, fist-fighting, at times making the audience cringe at too much crimson.

But thumbs up for the action pieces, which were well choreographed, especially the escape fight scene (you must learn, never to give a few minutes to a hit-man), and the climatic shoot out finale. Poetry in motion some might add, at times shot like John Woo's slow-motion style with classical music in the background. Various bad characters are up for our anti-hero's dispatch, and you'll find yourself rooting that he does so with as much pain as possible.

On the other end of the spectrum, this film also had incredible amounts of silence and non-action, which punctuated between the action sequences well. Sort of like a breather - the calm before the next storm.

The relationship element between Sun-woo and Hee-soo (Shin Min-a) however was never fully explored. It was hinted that the cause of the rift between servant and master was the woman, but because of the lack of explicit narrative and dialogue, this was never brought across in a clear manner, and left open to interpretation. Another element that somewhat fell flat was the forced attempts to inject humour with bumbling characters. Felt a bit out of place and the pacing suffered a tad bit.

Nonetheless, as a revenge movie, this film delivered. But there's somewhat a nagging thought in me that it could, and should have reached its full potential given the superb cast, stylish action and of course, bloody violence.
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Korean action that plays like a pumped-up HK crime film but at the cost of banal emotion
chaos-rampant8 December 2010
I'm writing this mostly to put thoughts into order on the idea of a film manipulating the audience. It comes up on film forums now and then and I can agree in principle because I recognize it from personal experience, that some films enable the viewer to experience a feeling while other films demand it of him, but watching KJW's film made it more clear for me. The formula of the revenge film is put in full practice here as a plot, in the first half we get the cruel injustice, in the second half the furious vengeance, yet KJW believes he's making more than a revenge film. The trouble here is that stock characters are put through the motions of living stock feelings and the bodyguard ordered to watch his boss's girlfriend falls in love because the film demands it of him. The film opens with a shot of trees blowing in the wind and a quote of the most banal philosophy (-"is it the branches moving or the wind?" -"it's your heart and mind"). This is trying to resemble a Wong Kar Wai film with the crucial difference that the sadness and longing feel artificial, not the result of personal conviction but rather that these ideas would look good on the film. That may be because KJW relishes the bloodshed. No other part of the film receives the care and attention of the scenes of violence.

Yet by the end of it, KJW isn't satisfied with a crime flick where blood gushes out of bullet holes (of which it's a good one), he wants emotion to pour out of the finale. For all this to work for me, for me to be able to acquiesce to the experience as something worth opening myself to, I need to hear the film play itself. Like a music instrument, a film that plays itself is music to my ears, good or bad at least it's an effort. I want to be able to see the film absorbed by its music like it doesn't even matter I'm there. KJW's film wants to play me, to use me as the music instrument to create emotion. A melancholy piano tunes in the right moment, we get a shot of the protagonist shedding a tear, this fabricated emotion is then cut by the loud bang of a pistol. To get back to what I wrote above, some films let me determine whether I will be sad or angry, A Bittersweet Life anxiously expects it of me, it's like the film is studying my reactions to see will I shed a tear. To the degree that all films are artifice, it could have something to do with different levels of transparency to that artifice.

I don't know if KJW's problem is that he doesn't have obsessions as a filmmaker. This is the third of his films I've actively disliked and all three of them are vastly different to each other. He's good with technique but, like Tarantino, he seems he doesn't have anything personal to share. In place of nothing to exorcize, he seems to pick every time a different genre to stave off boredom. As though anxious to prevent that same boredom in his audience, he fills his movies with passing thrills. At the same time he aspires to more than passing thrills, yet when the time comes for his film to express a conviction that the world is a certain way we get banalities.
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If you enjoyed John Wick, do yourself a favor and watch this.
Rubbercorpse3 March 2017
This spectacular movie came out nine years before John Wick, but because I am a westerner I saw J.W. and J.W.2 before this. After watching this masterpiece, I was compelled to write my first movie review. This movie is just as good as J.W. and in many ways similar to it, but it is something completely different at the same time. The movie is two hours long, but it didn't feel too lengthy or boring at all.

Dalkomhan insaeng tells the story of a respected, talented, and merciless mafia enforcer named Sung-Woo whose devotion to martial arts is beyond ordinary mobsters. He seems like a person who is used to doing everything his boss tells him, but one job makes him hesitate, and the mafia goes after him.

The way Sung-Woo's situation changes from being respected to hunted is expected yet perfectly subtle at the same time, and watching his character develop during the movie was rewarding. Every single character in the movie was believable and had a unique personality. The acting of all actors, both lead and support, was spot on.

What really made this movie a perfect 10 for me was how basically everything is shown. Just like in John Wick, the action scenes are filmed with steady cameras so the viewer can appreciate the choreography of the combat. And even so, there is still something even more visceral, gritty, and violent about this movie that I haven't seen before in cinema. Sure, there are super violent movies out there, but the violence in Dalkomhan insaeng didn't have a single sign of over-the-topness. We get to see dead bodies laying still in a growing pool of blood, stabbing, smashing, bullet hits and blood pulsating through bullet holes via the now rare medium of a still movie camera frame that truly lets the viewer see what's going on.

The movie had a few implausible events regarding main character Sung- Woo's abilities, fitness, and pain tolerance, but this movie definitely ranks closer to 10 than 9.5 in my books. After all, it is obvious from the start that Sung-Woo is not an ordinary guy. Also, the soundtrack was nice, different, and refreshing.
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Looking for a good old school gangster film with a hint of love and revenge. Look no further this should be your first pick.
Fahim Akhter28 April 2015
This is how mafia films should be and how I love them. Since its Korean obviously a little raw,sharp Round the edges and leaves you with a sour taste in taste in your mouth. Along with the obligatory oh what did I just watch moment. Haven't seen such a fine mafia film for a while, while Hollywood tries to turn Mafia films in summer block busters Korea is still doing it right. The difference between a modern Hollywood thriller and Korean cinema is that you question yourself is he going to live, is he? And often you are (un) pleasantly surprised.

The film follows a crime boss and his enforcer, who happens to be a man of honor in his own sense and not a big fan of well words. The film is a single story line but branches off, rivalry between different mafia houses, the chiefs girlfriend, the enforcer, love, revenge, a whole lot of kicking ass and broken bones. But simply put its a story about doing what's right and love, more importantly this still is a better love story than twilight. Not a lot of films in this genre leave a big smile on your face when they end this with its irony does.

The other major difference would be feeling empathy, while Sundance and other festival showcase the hard hitting dramas of Hollywood, pick a Korean action film and it still would make you feel something.

The cinematography is phenomenal it doesn't go crazy with color tones and doesn't care much about CGI its all really nicely thought out shots and well done stunts. There are some gorgeous frames that you don't see everyday and the way they show you something happening without explaining the whole thing or body is just beautiful.

Bonus points for gangster film with no nudity and well there is gore lots of it, you don't like blood? This one isn't for you.

The action is paced really nicely there are buildups and then serene moments. If raid is action films headliners done right this is raid without the red bull. Music is a bit of a let down but makes up for it with a great sound mix.

This one definitely goes in my must watch list. Also won't watch it again list just because of the sheer intensity of the film.
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