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.

★★★★★

Advertisements
Reviews
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.

★★★★☆

Reviews
Director Kim Jee-woon's exquisite use of colour enhances the tension

A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련) – ★★★★☆

A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련)

A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련)

It’s no secret that Western horror films tend to encapsulate social anxieties that must be stamped out by a conservative, traditional force. Such allegorical styles often fall into either socio-political anxieties, as with zombie films such as Romero’s catalogue of work including Dawn of the Dead (1978), or feminist/youth/sexual freedom in teen slasher films, such as the Halloween (1978-2009) series. Occasionally a psychoanalytic classic horror like Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) will be released to critical acclaim, yet after the furore has died down generic films depicting unrestrained teenage rebellion rise once more.

Asian horror films are markedly different. The allegorised social anxieties are more spiritual in nature and are often located within the homestead, exploring notions of family, technology, and ethical behaviour exemplified by films such as the Ring series (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge series (2003-2012), and The Eye series (2002). As with the West, attempts are made to control the disturbances yet they tend to be more patriarchal in nature, and the father/senior’s attempts at control often make the situation worse. Ultimately, the protagonist must unveil the mystery behind the source of horror, rather than suppress it. As such, Asian horror films are more inherently psychological in nature as they explore ‘the self’ in conjunction with spirituality whilst rejecting male chauvinism.

A Tale of Two Sisters not only exemplifies this trend, but is also an incredible and unique addition to the genre. Soo-mi (Im Soo-jeong (임수정) and younger sister Soo-yeon (Moon Geun-yeong (문근영) return to their family home in the country after a trip away. It’s not long before the sisters come into conflict with their new spiteful step-mother Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아), while their stoic father Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-soo (김갑수) looks on.

Soo-mi and Su-yeon can only rely on each other due to their dysfunctional family

Soo-mi (right) and Soo-yeon (left) can only rely on each other due to their dysfunctional family

Loosely based on a Joseon-era folktale, A Tale of Two Sisters is a chilling, atmospheric, and engaging film from start to finish. This is chiefly due to auteur Kim Ji-woon (김지운) who continually displays an incredible talent for playing with genre conventions and is masterful in creating suspense and terror. He integrates and evolves visual motifs seamlessly such as his exquisite use of colour to reflect whether a protagonist is safe or potentially in peril, such as the cool blue safety of the duvet covers, the eerie unsettling green of the furniture, and the horrific blood red decor in the dining room. Kim Ji-woon combines this eye for colour with a Kubrickian sense of symmetry (a la The Shining) and slow, long tracking shots through shadowy corridors and rooms that turns a peaceful family home into a labyrinthian horror. The motifs of flowers that beautifully adorn the wallpaper throughout the house initially, later become a tangled and sinister web of vines that threaten to engulf those who stand before it. Combined, the homestead is not only a source of horror but also alive and evolving as the sisters descend into the mystery.

Director Kim Jee-woon's exquisite use of colour enhances the tension

Director Kim Ji-woon’s exquisite use of colour enhances the tension

Soo-mi and Soo-yeon must not only contend with the ever-changing architecture, but also their vindictive step-mother. Visiting an old cabin in the neighbouring woods, Soo-mi finds old pictures and reveals that Eun-joo was previously her mother’s nurse. Enraged and paranoid, the sisters create further tension in their relationship with their ‘new mother’ as motives are questioned and clues are found. Compounding the tension further is the fact that all the protagonists begin to hear and see the supernatural, so that suspicion and mistrust are commonplace. The performances by all three actresses are engaging and compelling as each struggles with themselves and their environment, and expertly convey the tense, terrifying situations in which they find themselves.

Flower motifs and colours serve to heighten the suspense

Flower motifs and colours serve to heighten the suspense

Verdict:

A Tale of Two Sisters is an incredibly detailed and psychological horror that ranks among the upper echelons of the genre. Writer/director Kim Ji-woon plants enough red herrings and twists amongst his superb use of mise-en-scene that, from start to finish, makes the film an entrancing and enthralling viewing experience. If there are any criticisms to be highlighted, it would be that certain scenes of horror could perhaps be more inventive in their presentation, but this is a minor quibble. A Tale of Two Sisters is a fascinating journey of familial tension, teenage angst, and the supernatural and comes highly recommended.

★★★★☆


Reviews