달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life)

A Bom Film Production
Distribution: CJ Entertainment
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Action Noir
Running Time: 120 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2005/Apr/01

WITH 이병헌 (Lee Byung-Heon) as Seon-Woo; 김영철 (Kim Young-Cheol) as President Kang; 신민아 (Shin Min-Ah) as Hee-Soo; 김뢰하 (Kim Roe-Ha) as Moon-Seok; 이기영 (Lee Gi-Young) as Oh Mu-Seong; 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo) as Myeong-Gu; 김해곤 (Kim Hae-Gon) as Tae-Woong; 전국환 (Jeon Guk-Hwan) as Chairman Baek; 박선웅 (Park Seon-Woong) as Gyeong-Pyo; 김성오 (Kim Seong-Oh) as Mu-Seong's Subordinate; 황정민 (Hwang Jung-Min) as President Baek; 문정혁 (Moon Jung-Hyuk) as Tae-Gu; 정유미 (Jung Yoo-Mi) as Mi-Ae;

CREW Director 김지운 (Kim Ji-Woon) Executive Producer 오정완 (Oh Jung-Wan) 이유진 (Lee Yoo-Jin) | Screenplay 김지운 (Kim Ji-Woon) | Director of Photography 김지용 (Kim Ji-Yong) Lighting 신상렬 (Shin Sang-Ryeol) Editor 최재근 (Choi Jae-Geun) Music 달파란 (Dalparan) 장영규 (Jang Young-Gyu)  Art Director 류성희 (Ryu Seong-Hee) 이청미 (Lee Cheong-Mi) Action Choreography 정두홍 (Jung Doo-Hong) | Assistant Director 오세경 (Oh Se-Gyeong) 이소영 (Lee So-Young)

KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 7,234,813,100 Won
BUDGET: 6,680,000,000 Won


Christopher Doyle, the great Australian cinematographer, once said: "Sex is overrated. It's communication I care about." In Kim Jee-woon's 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), lack of proper communication leads to tragedy, and it's real communication, the one that gives you the will to live, that the characters aspire to. Because in a world where the balancing of violence and power is more important than human relations, there's no place for real dialogue, for sharing something with another person. The characters in this film are like machines, groomed to perfectly function without letting emotions get the better of them. This is a film about machines breaking down, because a breeze of fresh new air briefly entered their life, changing them forever. For Sun-Woo (Lee Byung-Heon), that breeze is represented by Hee-Soo (Shin Min-Ah), the young mistress of his boss, the woman he's supposed to tail, because she's apparently having an affair with a younger man. For Boss Kang (Kim Young-Cheol), that breeze is the defiance of long established hierarchies, the fact the only man he thought he could trust just disobeyed him for what he thinks is a quick infatuation. And so begins Kim's "Symphony for Mr. Violence," a three act story about miscommunication.

First act, piano. Sun-Woo, slick and cool as ice, has been working under Boss Kang for 7 years. He never makes mistakes, his confidence and experience so high he can slowly taste a serving of dessert before heading downstairs to take care of business with a few " noisy" customers. He's good looking, well mannered, always clothed in designer brands and an able driver. But best of all he's a quick, dangerously effective fighter, mixing style with accuracy. Kang trusts him, he says, because he's never fallen in love, he's not weakened by primal emotions, which the old fox sees as a dangerous risk to take when dealing with life or death matters. Kang, white hair and expressionless look hardened by decades of living the tough life, has seen too much, fought too hard to let his empire crumble under young punks with no manners. But he's getting old, his subordinates resemble more a bunch of glorified 양아치 (gangster wannabes) than people who are supposed to cover his ass. He's married but can't communicate with his wife, has a young mistress he keeps more as a trophy or flower vase, watering it once in a while with gifts to keep it fresh. He doesn't need to kill some poor soul to gain respect amongst his peers. All he needs is the status quo of power. But to maintain that, he needs someone who can be trusted, so what better chance to prove if Sun-Woo is up to the task by virtually staging a "jealousy" matter with Hee-Soo? If he can maintain his integrity and loyalty in this situation, Kang will know for sure Sun-Woo has it. That he's finally ready to settle down and let the young boy do the job for him.

Second act, allegro ma non troppo. The plan seems to be going perfectly, Sun-Woo is trying to keep a distance, but something happens, something he never expected. Those fleeting moments with Hee-Soo open an old wound that he had completely forgotten about. For a moment, Sun-Woo is alive again, he sees the kind of life he used to have, he could still have, if it wasn't for all that damn loyalty and integrity. All it took was a few smiles, spending a day looking at a graceful lady full of life eat ice cream next to him, listening to her cello practice, finally relaxing. Finally alive, sharing moments with a real person, not some cartoonish gangster whose gibberish starts and ends with a swear word. And that's when the (Korean) title of the film, an homage to Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita starts to make sense. Sun-Woo finds an oasis called emotion, in the desert that was his life. He's like Marcello Mastroianni, Hee-Soo his Anita Ekberg, her smiles and human warmth the Fontana Di Trevi where for a day he can bury all his problems, all the loneliness and hopeless future, and live life like he'd love to. But for someone who hid his emotions for so long that's too wild a concept to absorb. Emotion turns into vulnerability, which in his profession often means death. His misunderstanding begins from that moment, and so does Kang's. Why did he do that? Was it love? Sexual attraction? Did he just want to challenge his orders? Kang loses the only thing that was sure in his life, that everybody was afraid of him, and followed his word like a sutra. Now he finds himself violated, his power laughed at. Why did he disobey him?

Final act. Crescendo. Sun-Woo wants to take matters into his own. He's barely used a gun once or twice while working as a bodyguard, he can't even tell the difference between a Russian made Stechkin and a regular one. He finds a seller (Kim Hae-Gon), with his tacky leather jacket, fur on the shoulders, looking like the Korean love child of Joe Pesci and Mad Max. His lackeys? A Russian called Mikhail whose acquaintance with the Korean language starts and ends with an hilariously accented 쓰발 (Do I need to translate curse words?), proving that foreign tongues are difficult, but cursing is an international language of its own. The other guy (Oh Dal-Soo) keeps arguing with Mikhail, mixing Russian and Busan accent with alarming frequency. Sun-Woo has lost everything, that fleeting moment of beauty, but also starts to understand that the 7 years he's given to Mr. Kang, where he worked under him like a dog, meant nothing to him. He was just like every other thug, someone to be disposed of once he makes a mistake. Life has no value for him anymore, all he knows is that he needs to make people pay for what they did to him. He did nothing wrong.

When I heard Kim was making a film noir, I was wondering what would turn out. After all, while Kim has dealt with genre Cinema for almost a decade, his films aren't just dark comedies (The Quiet Family's theater-influenced comedy and reworking of the archetypal TV Drama "Family-ism" of the characters), action comedies (The Foul King's hilarious and touching rendering of the struggles of the everyday man in the dog-eats-dog world of the Korean job market) or horror films (the darkly psychological undertones to A Tale of Two Sisters, and its maniacal attention to detail in sound and art design). The result was something not entirely unpredictable (at least for those familiar with Kim's past work), but still tremendously fresh, giving new vigor to the Korean film noir. Style aside - and stylish this film definitely is, I'd hazard amongst the most stylish Korean films ever - was he going to stick to his usual themes or go in a new direction? Part Melville meets Spaghetti Western, part Jang Jin-style black comedy and part Park Chan-Wook Stylish violence, Kim's unique noir technique perfectly meshes with his past work, offering new mental meat to grind in your mind. He has made something so stylish and minimalist, yet so rich in delving into different aspects of genre-filmmaking, blending what we'd usually expect from an uniquely Korean noir, especially if you look at its predecessors in the mid 90s (Rules of The Game, Born To Kill, Beat).

Thanks to Jung Doo-Hong's constantly improving vision, the action is one of the film's strongest point. Organic, essential, beautifully staged and refreshingly realistic. What's really interesting is how Jung doesn't allow the genre to dictate his style, nor its roots to alienate the characters from their cultural backgrounds. Korea has little or no gun culture, that's why Sun-Woo misses most of his shots, why he doesn't use it with the machismo associated to weapon use in Western or (some) Hong Kong films. He shoots without passion, nervously, often without aiming, hitting parts that are not fatal. He struggles to even mount a strategy since the idea of using a gun is little more than something he saw in the movies. What Kim and Jung did really well here is juxtapose the knife's importance in Korean style violence and the machismo associated with it (go watch some Korean gangster films and you see the weapon of choice is either a sashimi knife or a baseball bat, never guns, even though criminals could get them via the black market), opposed to the bland omnipotence of the black toy. And in line with the rest of Jung's work the keyword here is essential. You don't see unnecessary movement, superhuman wirefu histrionics. The only one allowed to display some style in going mano-y-mano is Sun-Woo, to portray his experience and ability in dealing with physical confrontation. And it's essentialism the focus of the shootouts as well, maximizing the pain inflicted by bullets, showing guns are not a mere toy to use prattling around like some beefcake pseudo-heroic character from Hollywood's action wasteland. It's when the action becomes frenetic and the body count increases that that symphony of violence comes to conclusion, engulfing the hunter and its prey.

Once again, art direction becomes a character in a Kim Jee-woon film. In The Quiet Family, the hotel sort of represented the fragmented and diverse personalities of the family, separated in mind but united by heart, all under the same roof. In The Foul King, the training gym and the ring were Im Dae-Ho's (Song Kang-Ho) gateway to overcome humiliation and the harshness of reality. In A Tale of Two Sisters, the house was a macabre "sister" to the step-mother (Yeom Jung-Ah), almost moving in accordance with that woman's desires, at least in someone's mind... it's no different here. The Sky Lounge, too perfect to be real, harmoniously staged from the light carpet next to the Bar, up to the tree (a running metaphor throughout the film, symbolizing the characters' changes of heart). Hee-Soo's house, with more warmth and colour, as appealing as her owner. Sun-Woo's apartment, as minimalist and slick as only he can be, giving an air of melancholy and loneliness. They all become characters who act in the background to solidify the main players, like those veterans who silently carry scenes complementing their younger colleagues without ever upstaging them. Kim and his Art Direction Team have become masters in dealing with this aspect of filmmaking.

The music also deserves a mention. Mad genius Jang Young-Gyu's most mature work yet, aided by Dalparan for the more electronica-heavy parts. Jang still keeps a strong tie to his past work with EoEoBu Project (the cult experimental band that featured in The Foul King, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and many other films), but seems past that phase where you try to be creative to impress, not to improve yourself. Dalparan (real name Kang Gi-Young) is perhaps better known for his work with Jang Sun-Woo, and is a past member of the great indie trio PipiBand, the Sonic Youth of Korea. The soundtrack has a very European feeling, with touches influenced by Morricone, Spanish Flamenco, more ethnic flavour, all expertly mixed with Dalparan's thumping beats. It perfectly complements the action with its crescendos, and comes close to the beautiful main theme in A Tale of Two Sisters when it's time to convey what La Dolce Vita, the sweet life for Sun-Woo really is. I almost never buy OSTs because they rarely keep their musical strength dissociated from the film they belong to, but this is one I'd happily give a try to.

And then comes the main course, the cast. Lee, cool as ice, experienced and talented enough to know that his good looks can be a double edged sword if you can't take advantage of them, looking like a stray cat whenever dealing with real people, and a ruthless tiger when confronting foes and alleged friends, suspicious as ever. Kim Young-Cheol, fresh off his turn as Kim Doo-Han (the legendary gangster) in the second part of The Rustic Era, expressionless for 9/10 of the film, showing all his pent up frustration in the crucial moment. Shin Min-Ah, who was really well cast (Who else? Son Ye-Jin was too distant and too beautiful, Im Soo-Jung too sophisticated, Bae Doo-Na too sexy, Kang Hye-Jung too mature), offering the right mix of playful innocence and sexy maturity. Hwang Jung-Min, sly and hilarious in his jealousy and petty selfishness: Oh Dal-Soo, who's becoming a younger version of Baek Yoon-Shik, who makes banter in Russian sound like a couple of drunken people in Busan arguing at a tent bar, part hilarious and part majestic in his ability to capture the frame. Lee Gi-Young, finally back to the movies in a stable way after long years of struggling in TV Dramas as a bit player, as enigmatic and ruthless as Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. Kim Hae-Gon, the writer cum director cum part-time actor, looking like everything but a cold and calculated killer. This is a marvelous ensemble cast, adeptly playing to Kim's vision, making scenes stand out even when probably they shouldn't, adding great flavour to a film that's only deceptively simple.

Although I think Kim has never made a bad film, and most of his work is memorable in its own unique way, this might be his calling card to International fame. Its technical and visual splendor on display a perfect complement to all the artistry behind the scenes, from the music to the sound design (deliciously sophisticated, far removed from the squib fests that plagued too many Korean noirs in the 90s). Its balancing of stylish and nihilistic violence with tremendously effective black comedy, the kind that never gets to its knees begging you to laugh but earns it with its uniqueness. Its beautiful melancholy hidden under the wah wah and the bang bang, it all comes together as a masterful whole. It might only end up quietly pleasing cult film fans, but Kim has finally given Korea a film noir to be proud of. One that shows a master filmmaker at the top of his game, putting so much into a film to make it shine, yet making it all look so simple. In an action film world of stiff trees never moving even if hit by hurricanes, his refreshing breeze will certainly move many people's hearts.

Originally Published on Twitch - 2005/08/07


82 김영철 (Kim Young-Cheol)
81 이기영 (Lee Gi-Young)
80 황정민 (Hwang Jung-Min)
79 이병헌 (Lee Byung-Heon)
76 김뢰하 (Kim Roe-Ha)
74 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo)
72 전국환 (Jeon Guk-Hwan)
71 김해곤 (Kim Hae-Gon)
67 신민아 (Shin Min-Ah)
66 박선웅 (Park Seon-Woong)
65 김성오 (Kim Seong-Oh)
60 문정혁 (Moon Jung-Hyuk)

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