Philadelphia Film Festival: A Bittersweet Life

The next film in my marathon was the Korean gangster flick, A Bittersweet Life. The recent surge in ultra-cool Korean action films intrigued me (particularly Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance” trilogy, which I have not yet been able to see) and so I figured I’d check this one out. It’s a decent enough film and it kept me entertained, but it ultimately left me unfulfilled.

Sun Woo is an “enforcer” at a hotel bar run by an organized crime syndicate led by President Kang. As we see in the first scene, Sun Woo is your typical icy and efficient mobster, and has earned the trust of the syndicate’s leader, President Kang. When Kang needs to leave town for a few days, he asks Sun Woo to do him a personal favour. Kang wants Sun Woo to look after his young mistress, Hee Soo. What’s more, Kang suspects that she is cheating on him. If she is, Sun Woo is supposed to kill her and her lover on the spot. Of course, she really is cheating on Kang and it doesn’t take long for Sun Woo to catch them in the act. Naturally, Hee Soo has stirred something in Sun Woo and he can’t follow through on his orders, instead telling the lovers that they can never see each other again. This small act of mercy is the catalyst for the rest of the story, as Kang immediately realizes what happened and is none too happy. Meanwhile, Sun Woo has also seen fit to offend a rival syndicate, and refuses to apologize for his insolence, so they’re none too happy as well. Betrayed by his own boss and on the run from others, Sun Woo seeks to exact revenge.

Let’s be clear, the story here is nothing special. Writer/Director Ji-woon Kim plays the formulaic and derivative story straight, and while it works for about the first two thirds of the movie, it’s strained in the final act. There are no twists, no double crosses, no big surprises. We don’t go too deeply into characterization, and the neo-noir action story goes pretty much exactly how you’d expect it to go. However, we are treated to a number of excellent scenes along the way, including several humourous touches. The most notable action sequence of the film comes as Sun Woo manages to escape his captors. Stylish, violent, and original, it was the highlight of the film. Other highlights include Sun Woo’s attempts to purchase guns from a group of wannabe gangsters (including a brilliant moment when their leader realizes that Sun Woo is faking), and the final gunfight.

While the story might not be anything special, the execution is top-notch. The direction and cinematography are stylish and the performances, especially by Byung-hun Lee (who plays Sun Woo), are excellent. Writer/Director Ji-woon Kim knows he’s not blazing a new path, and he manages to have some fun with the procedings. The film ends the way you’d expect, but it lingers a little too long and the characters didn’t seem deep enough to warrant the ending. Sun Woo’s motivations are left open for interpretation (there are obvious and no so obvious interpretations possible), but the very last sequence, featuring flashbacks and imagery from earlier in the film, is a little too overt and it defiinitely goes on too long.

There’s a lot to like about the film, but as I mentioned earlier, it begins to lose steam about two thirds of the way in, and by the end, it’s straining the limits of implausibility. What initially drew me to this film was the description that it contains “shootouts that make vintage John Woo look like romantic comedies by comparison.” Perhaps my expectations were too high, but with the exception of the aformentioned escape scene (which is not a shootout, but harrowing nonetheless), the action sequences don’t begin to approach vintage Woo gunfights. Nevertheless, it is an above average action film and well worth the watch for fans of the genre. (**1/2)

Update 4.15.06: I’ve created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.