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Twist of Noir Goes Long Way in 'Bittersweet Life'

2005/03/31 Source

By Philip Dorsey Iglauer
Contributing Writer

Lee Byung-hun is a hitman 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-chul) assigns Sun-woo, his right-hand man, to watch after his nubile girlfriend/professional cellist Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah) 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 (and we) 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. Consequently, we want to know as much as Sun-woo why they are doing this to him.

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. And I have never seen a Hyundai Sonata bludgeon the Bad Guys like that in a Korean film.

This movie does one thing very refreshing for the Korean gangster movie genre. It introduced foreign killers, indirect social commentary on the influx of migrant workers into the country. And guns are presented in a new, realistic light that made me rethink the way I understand organized crime in Seoul. For one, people who get shot do not always get hit in the head or the chest. It is a simple gesture, but ironically, one that makes guns seem scarier and more dangerous as they become less predictable and controllable. In real life, guns are scary.

I am not sure the philosophical underpinnings this new creation by one of Korea's premiere filmmakers justifies mysterious plot devices, but the stylish cinematography and ultra-violence make up for it.

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