Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생) – ★★★★★

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

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.

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

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 escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

Sun-woo escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

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.

Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

Sun-woo’s arrogance leads to his downfall

Verdict:

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.

★★★★★

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Mirror image - who is the monster?

I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다) – ★★★★☆

I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다)

I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다)

Director Kim Ji-woon (김지운) is renowned for his genre-play, which perhaps makes it surprising that he waited so long to tackle Korea’s most popular genre – the thriller. As his 8th film, I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다) is not only a refreshing take on an over-saturated genre but also extends beyond the celluloid in a similar fashion to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997, 2008). Kim Ji-woon understands the genre and its relationship with the audience immensely; that audiences see thrillers to be thrilled. To this end, the auteur not only repeatedly creates incredibly suspenseful scenarios but also indirectly holds audiences accountable for the cruelty and violence that ensues.

I Saw the Devil depicts the story of intelligence agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌), whose fiance is brutally murdered by serial killer Jang Keyong-cheol (Choi Min-sik (최민식). Not content with simply finding his finance’s murderer, Soo-hyeon plans to torture Keyong-cheol in the worst way possible – by striking just as the psycho’s bloodlust is about to be fulfilled, severely punishing him, and then setting him free. In this way Keyong-chul’s punishment, and Soo-hyeon’s vengeance, will be never-ending…but in doing so, Soo-hyeon must walk the dangerous line between man and monster.

Jang Keyong-cheol (장경철, Choi Min-sik (최민식) deals with his latest victim

Jang Keyong-cheol (Choi Min-sik) deals with his latest victim

Choi Min-sik and Lee Byeong-Heon are, as one would expect from such acting powerhouses, fantastic in their roles as serial killer and intelligence agent. While the roles don’t exactly stretch the actors into new territory, they convey incredible intensity throughout their cat-and-mouse games. Choi Min-sik in particular appears to relish his turn as sadistic serial killer Jang Keyong-cheol as he snarls and cackles without remorse as his victims suffer atrocities. His sheer intensity during such perverse sequences makes for uncomfortable but compelling viewing, and even provides some darkly comedic sensibilities in the horrific and ironic situations that arise. Lee Byeong-Heon is also terrific as he searches for revenge. The evolution of his character from agent to monster is riveting, as his moral code dissipates and allows further crimes to be committed in his selfish and arrogant desire for extreme vengeance.

The audience derives pleasure from the killers twisted games

The audience derives pleasure from the killers twisted games

Kim Ji-woon has achieved ‘auteur’ status for a very good reason, and actually manages to extend himself further through incorporating audience ‘pleasures’ and accountability. When the film begins, the camera is within a van driving along rustic country lanes in the snow. Either side of the rear-view mirror are florescent blue ‘wings’ that connote eyes; audiences are thus placed within the mind of a ‘monster’ as it prowls the countryside for its next victim. This is a recurring feature, as Kim Ji-woon aligns audiences with the villain making them responsible for their own voyeuristic desires of violence and mayhem. Yet once intelligence agent Soo-hyeon has caught the monster, the auteur splits alignment between the excitement of Keyong-cheol as he obtains his next victim, and the thrills of Soo-hyeon as he violently halts the killer. Kim Ji-woon understands his audience intimately and makes the cat and mouse game, in a sense, the audience chasing themselves as they simultaneously enjoy the murderous thrill of catching the prey and the (violent) catharsis of the saviour-figure that stops the perversity before the degradation has gone beyond acceptable limitations. He then punishes the audience for their desires within the narrative structure, forcing them to face their own notions of ‘pleasure’ within the cinema.

Mirror image - who is the monster?

Mirror image – who is the monster?

Verdict:

I Saw the Devil is a wonderful addition to an over-saturated genre, and offers a fresh and interesting take on the notions of revenge by implicating audiences within the frantically-paced violence that transpires. As such, the protagonists lack depth and the events that transpire do little to provide evolution, but the film is not intended as a character study. Rather, it’s about the nature of violence and retribution, its escalation, and the accountability of the audience in their desires for such cruelty.

★★★★☆

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The inevitable stand-off provides catharsis

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) – ★★★★☆

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈)

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈)

The western genre is most obviously synonymous with America, and is arguably one of the few unique cultural products to emerge from the country. While Spanish westerns had existed prior, the notions of a ‘promised land’ of ‘New Eden’, the taming of the wilderness/frontier, and the conflict generated in the origins of a nation are all uniformly American in nature and allude to the difficulty of the era. The Searchers (1956) perhaps best exemplifies such ideological underpinnings, featuring western icon John Wayne as the tortured lead protagonist. Clint Eastwood’s career was forged through the genre and was capped by the magnificent Unforgiven (1992), which deconstructed the mythology surrounding the cowboy/outlaw and explored the inherent corruption of law officials.

Therefore, when superstar auteur Kim Ji-woon (김지운) announced his intentions to direct a Korean western, it was met with some trepidation; how could such an exclusively American genre be molded to suit Korean audiences and reflect Korean history and culture? The apprehension was unwarranted, as The Good, the Bad, the Weird  (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) not only addresses such concerns but extends beyond them, becoming a worthy addition to the genre in its own right.

Set in the 1930s Manchurian desert, The Good, the Bad, the Weird portrays a land of lawlessness and violence. Korea is occupied under Japanese rule, and refugees flee north to escape persecution. However, the land is far from a safe haven as immigrants from all nations struggle to survive. Within this fray is ‘The Weird’ train robber Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho (송강호), who stumbles in and out of danger with an apparent nine lives. Performing his usual heist, Tae-goo unintentionally procures a treasure map rumoured to be the resting place of unimaginable wealth from the Qing Dynasty. However, ‘The Bad’ Park Chang-yi (Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌) and his gang of bandits also desire the map, and give chase. Behind them is ‘The Good’ bounty hunter Park Do-won (Jeong Woo-seong (정우성), seeking to bring both men to justice.

'The Bad' Park Chang-yi (박창이) leads bandits on a murderous chase

‘The Bad’ Park Chang-yi (박창이) leads bandits on a murderous chase

As the motives for chasing each other continually change, the emphasis is not on a gritty-realist portrayal but rather an action-orientated dark-humoured revisionist style. As with Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), each character has their own distinctive brand of death-dealing and mayhem such as Do-won’s long range rifle that blows miscreants through walls, Chang-yi’s knife wielding blood lust, or Tae-goo’s bizarre luck in dropping opponents. The light-hearted nature is Indiana Jones-esque as the film moves from one action set-piece spectacular to the next as bad guys and worse guys alike are blown to bits. As with all Kim Ji-woon’s films, the characters can be enjoyed on multiple levels. On the surface, they are fun and generic protagonists; on a more penetrative level they are allegories of Korea in-flux, the personification of national identity under Japanese occupation. They are fragments of a whole, each one without a country, each one on the run from a tortured past and chasing the other. The inevitable stand-off provides catharsis not only for audiences in need of resolution, but also for themselves as they simultaneously desire each other but want to be the last man standing and solidify their/Korea’s identity.

The inevitable stand-off provides catharsis

The inevitable stand-off provides catharsis

Director Kim Ji-woon is renowned for genre-play, taking pre-existing conventions and flipping them to create something vibrant and fresh. The Good, the Bad, the Weird  is no different as the gritty ol’ west is eschewed for fun and action set pieces which are shot in incredible fashion. The mise-en-scene is superb in every frame, with the consistent use of long takes adding considerable realism and enjoyment. Kim Ji-woon also employs the use of crash-zoom shots to great effect, but does so in his unique style that functions simultaneously as parody and pastiche of the genre. The multi-tiered action sequence in the Ghost Market is pure joy as Do-won flies on rooftops, Chang-yi cuts a swathe through other villains within buildings, and Tae-go simply tries to survive as he navigates the claustrophobic streets. Similarly the final chase sequence between the titular characters, marauding Manchurians and the Japanese army is exhilarating as the camera weaves between everyone involved while bullets fly and the body count rises.

Do-won ('The Good') pursues his targets

Do-won (‘The Good’) pursues his targets

Verdict:

The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a zany, fun-filled revisionist take on a traditionally American genre. Kim Ji-woon makes it a uniquely Korean production primed with historical and cultural anxieties. As the pace of the film is frantic to say the least, there is very little in the way of character development or dramatic, poignant scenes as to why the map (and the rush for the treasure) is so vital for all involved. Instead, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is an action-packed love letter to the genre, one that provides incredible enjoyment from start to finish.

★★★★☆

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