Contemporary action heroes are markedly different from their forebearers. Fragments of the stoic hard-boiled masculinity of the noir 1930s, the rebellious ‘anti-hero’ escapades of the ’60s, and the hyper-masculinity of the ’80s amongst others still exist yet are characterised by more psychologically flawed and vulnerable protagonists. The psychosis of the contemporary action hero is propagated further by his/her unfettered arrogance which often serves to be the source of their appeal; they may be murderous unhinged individuals, but they conduct violence with such swagger and confidence that popularity is undoubtedly assured. The most recent incarnation of James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is a prime example of such characterisation and differs incredibly from previous actors rendition of the spy. Such traits are of fundamental significance in Kim Ji-woon’s (김지운) A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생), an amazingly stylised action noir thriller that boasts an incredible performance from leading man Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌).
Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byeong-Heon) is an enforcer for ruthless gangster and hotel owner Mr. Kang (Kim Young-cheol (김영철). Sun-woo is the epitome of diligence and loyalty, protecting his boss’ interests above all else including beating lower-tier gangsters that visit the establishment to cause trouble. Before a business trip to Shanghai, Mr. Kang orders Sun-woo to watch his young girlfriend Hee-soo (Sin Min-ah (신민아) for fear she is meeting another, younger, man. If Sun-woo confirms his suspicions, he must ‘take care’ of the situation. Yet when Sun-woo meets Hee-soo he is captivated by her, and cannot fulfill his obligations when her affair is discovered. Enraged, Mr. Kang orders his men to punish Sun-woo, setting in motion a series of events that tests both men to their limits.
As expected from auteur Kim Ji-woon, A Bittersweet Life is technically fantastic with wonderful framing and composition, and superb use of mise-en-scene. The writer/director combines a multitude of different generic features seamlessly. The elegant gangster inspired ‘La Dolce Vita’ restaurant is exquisitely constructed, with a title that becomes a recurring subliminal pun throughout the film. The ultra-violent action sequences are brutal and shocking in their presentation, often accompanied by noir-esque shadows and suspense. The inclusion of romantic motifs are subtle yet moving as close up shots of minor mannerisms effect Sun-woo, that ultimately lead to his downfall. Sun-woo’s loneliness is consistently emphasised by framing devices that convey his isolation, as do the angled shots that portray the trajectory of his devolution down the gangster hierarchy. Kim Ji-woon’s renowned use of colour is on full display, from the bright white corridors that lead to the deep red and black interior of ‘La Dolce Vita’ to the continued use of bright lights surrounding love-interest Hee-soo. This subtly ties into Sun-woo’s almost obsessive compulsive disorder for switching lamps on and off several times before sleeping, as Hee-soo is constantly surrounded by light and has a penchant for lamps of all varieties.
Sun-woo is an incredibly arrogant and prideful protagonist, wonderfully portrayed by Lee Byeong-Heon. The intensity and conflict from his previous roles serves him well as Sun-woo’s narrative journey takes him from the upper echelons of the gang to crawling on his knees. And yet Sun-woo still refuses to acknowledge his feelings or to apologise, just as Mr. Kang refuses to change his stance to spare his dignity. They are mirrors of each other not just in personality and career but also in their affection for Hee-soo, and it’s ultimately that jealousy that destroys them all including the organisation. The final images of Sun-woo shadow boxing with his own reflection in ‘La Dolce Vita’ are tragically revealing, as his narcissistic spirit is forever locked in an internal love/hate battle with himself and his organisation. The other actors all convey great performances, although they are somewhat underdeveloped. Sin Min-ah conveys innocence and naivety as Hee-soo, and immeasurable sadness when her affair is brought to light. Kim Young-cheol is wonderfully sadistic as Mr. Kang and the mirror of Sun-woo, conveying real internal conflict when giving orders against his protege. As jealous second lieutenant Mun-suk, Kim Roi-ha is delightfully vindictive despite his limited character.
A Bittersweet Life is an incredibly stylised action/gangster/noir thriller that is head-and-shoulders above other recent examples of the genre. As always, director Kim Ji-woon doesn’t disappoint, employing a variety of generic motifs to wonderful effect that keeps the film moving at a brisk pace without detracting from lead character Sun-woo’s development. Lee Byeong-Heon gives a wonderful performance as the flawed anti-hero, and despite his violent tendencies and arrogance is one of the most compelling action protagonists in recent memory. A Bittersweet Life is a premier example of the innovation of Korean cinema, and a more than worthy addition to the genre.