Originally published on the old Cinewise blog on 24th October 2010
About 5 minutes into A Bittersweet Life, you know exactly how the plot will unravel. We have seen this all before: a criminal boss entrusts his right-hand man to take care of a personal business, which becomes the right-hand man’s personal business … which ends up in a fall-out with the criminal boss … and it all ends in bloodshed. Miller’s Crossing (1990) anyone? Or even Pulp Fiction (1994)?
This ultra-sleek and very-well shot action/thriller (and an occasional gorefest) ticks all the right boxes, with a story neatly tied at the end (no strand is left dangling in a screenplay limbo). The problem, though, is that it ties everything a little too neatly.
It has taken its premise and plot from previous films, but in its method of delivery its inspiration is nothing but the drab and by-the-books screenwriting books – it is a masterclass in screenwriting convention, so it lacks the emotional punch and subtle delivery that the aforementioned two films have.
Director Ji-woon Kim seasons his film with deliberate bursts of rousing soundtrack and a nifty camera trick here and there, but it feels forced on the plot. You are all too aware of its business-like approach and it becomes tedious after a while. The plot meanders a lot (especially in the second-half when the pace is inexpicably snail-like) and it all pays off in the end in a shoot-out that is so outrageously nonsensical, you wouldn’t even notice its disappointing delivery.
Not all is bad about this, though. As I’ve said before, this is a very-well made and handsome film. The city (presumably Seoul) is perpetually in the dark, but all so alive. Despite the lack of light, there aren’t any corners left unlit. Byung-hun Lee’s enforcer is a well-oiled machine of efficiency – his heroics aren’t just incredible acts of martial arts wizardry. He enforces his boss’s commands in a calm and cool fashion, never letting his well-tailored suit to crease or wrinkle. His battered and bruised face even remains scratched only slightly … after being beaten to almost-death, hung from the rafters of a dilapidated warehouse, buried alive. He is stabbed a few times on an ice rink. He is shot repeatedly. Yet he is the epitome of cool. Which is brilliant.
A Bittersweet Life could have been an amazing film – it has a lot of positibe things going for it. But it is all too aware of its desire to be perfect.