NOTE:This DVD is coded for playback in Region 3. In order to watch this disc, you'll have to have either a player coded for Region 3, or a Region Free DVD Player.
A Bittersweet Life, the latest film from Ji-woon Kim (who previously helmed The Quiet Family and A Tale Of Two Sisters) proves the old adage of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' with its derivative and unoriginal story of cold and bloody revenge. However, what the film lacks in originality it more than makes up for in style and creative violence even if it does take the movie an hour or so to really get moving.
Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee) is a mobster who serves in the employ of President Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim). When Kang has to go away on business, he arranges to have Sun-woo look after his young and very pretty mistress, Hee-soo (Min-a Shin of Volcano High). Sun-woo promises to call Kang if he notices anything funny in the young lady's behavior and off Kang goes to take care of business.
Hee-soo isn't so keen on being escorted around by one of her man's henchmen but Sun-woo does his best to be nice to the girl. While shadowing her, he discovers that she has a lover on the side and after beating him up, decides to let him go on the condition that he and Hee-soo breathe a word of this to no one. Of course, eventually Kang finds out that Sun-woo didn't keep his promise, and he's kicked out of the gang after finding himself on the end of a serious ass kicking. Hee-soo, convinced he has done the right thing and kept Sun-woo's best interests at heart, heads into the underworld of Seoul to get himself a gun so that he can get back the gangsters who beat him up and tried to kill him. He works his way through the alleys and streets towards Kang's headquarters, determined to exact his revenge one man at a time until he works his way up to the top of the ladder.
Borrowing bits and pieces from better known action and noir films (parts of the movie reminded me of John Woo's The Killer, other parts of John Boorman's Point Blank and other parts of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction), Ji-woon Kim crafts a gorgeous looking and very dark noir that starts off slowly but builds very nicely to a brutal and bloody climax that ends everything, predictably so, in a hail of bullets. While the movie wears its influences proudly on its sleeve, and it takes its sweet time getting going, the pay off is completely worth it and when Sun-woo decides to strike back, the body count amasses at an extremely brisk pace.
Byung-hun Lee is perfect as the stone faced Sun-woo, playing his role with a massive amount of cool and looking very much like the consummate mobster, constantly decked out in a neat black suit and never cracking a smile. He takes everything very seriously so when he breaks his promise to his boss, it does come as quite a surprise though the events that decision set into motion seem inevitable. Min-a Shin is as cute as a button as the female lead – pretty and innocent enough that her charms are not lost on the man charged with her protection. Yeong-cheol Kim certainly looks the part of the mob boss Kang, and when his employees decision sets him off, his performance does a nice job of portraying his anger and his disappointment in having his trust broken by someone he put faith in.
A Bittersweet Life also has its share of cleverly placed moments of black humor. The men charged with digging Sun-woo's grave before his planned execution don't mix words when the realize he's made his escape, their dialogue, while perfectly natural, is also quite amusing. Some of the interplay between Sun-woo and Hee-soo is also not without its charm, as she considers him a boring man to have to deal with despite the fact that he's a hired killer by trade. She's immune to him, having been surrounded by criminal activity for some time now, and the novelty has worn off before they've even met. One of the men that Kang sends after Sun-woo looks like Hunter S. Thompson on a fishing trip – his very presence adds a strange sense of comic relief to the scenes he is in, despite the fact that in reality he's a pretty nasty guy capable of some fairly horrendous acts of violence.
The cinematography and art direction for the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Even during the slower first half of the film, the movie is a treat for the eyes and the ears with plenty of interesting color schemes and camera angles dancing about on screen as the storyline builds towards the inevitable. The noirish use of darks shadows and interesting pans down long, bleak corridors give the movie a very dark look that does a nice job of complimenting the storyline.
In the end, we're not really seeing anything that we haven't seen before with this film, but it's a lot of fun and a very well made film regardless. Seeing the transition that Sun-woo goes through after meeting Hee-soo makes for some interesting character development and the last hour of the film certainly delivers on the gun play/action movie front. Throw in some truly gorgeous cinematography, a likeable and interesting lead character, nifty art direction and sets, a solid supporting cast and some very creative violence and A Bittersweet Life comes up a winner.
The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD is decent enough but not without a few notable flaws. First up is that there are some very obvious instances of moderate to heavy film grain present on the picture. Add to that the fact that there is some noticeable print damage (not tons, but certainly more than you'd expect to see on a film that's only a year or two old) and some very heavy edge enhancement and you can see how it's less than perfect. On the positive side, the colors look great on this DVD, especially the skin tones, and the black levels are strong and solid throughout and don't exhibit any issues as far as mpeg compression artifacts are concerned.
There are three audio mixes available on this DVD – a DTS ES 6.1 mix, a Dolby Digital 6.1 Surround Sound mix, and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix, all three of which are in Korean with optional Korean or English subtitles available (for the film only). The 6.1 DTS mix is the way to go if you're so equipped as it provides an intense and immersive listening experience that really brings the action and gun play scenes to life. During the film's finale bullets will whiz past, plaster will crack and glass will shatter and you'll find yourself sitting in the middle as it all goes down. Dialogue is crisp and clean and bass response provides the mix with plenty of kick. The Dolby Digital 6.1 Surround Sound mix doesn't sound too far off from the DTS mix, though as one would expect the bass levels are a little less intense. The 2.0 mix isn't nearly as immersive but if you don't have a 5.1 or 6.1 setup, it will do the trick nicely. The levels are balanced properly on all three mixes and while the dialogue and a large portion of the action are relegated to the front of the soundstage, when the rears are needed in the surround mixes you'll know that they're there. The subtitles are clean and clear and easy to read and free of any typographical errors though there are one or two awkward phrases that are in there, though thankfully they're minor and easy to ignore. All in all, the audio on this release is top notch.
On the first disc there are two audio commentaries, the first one with the director and a couple of cast members and the second one with the director, the director of photography and the art director. Neither of these commentary tracks are subtitled, unfortunately, so unless you speak Korean (and I don't) then you're not going to get much use out of these tracks which is a shame.
On the second disc is where the bulk of the extra features can be found, but sadly, once again, there are no English subtitles provided for any of them. La Dolce Vita is a lengthy self-interview with the director of the film, The Making of A Bittersweet Life is exactly what it sounds like, a making of documentary, that provides some interesting behind the scenes footage as well as plenty of interview footage. The Style of A Bittersweet Life looks like it focuses on the set design and the cinematography. There are also some deleted and alternate scenes but again, there are no subs for these segments so putting them into context within the film itself becomes quite tricky. Rounding out the extra features is some Cannes Film Festival Footage, the complete credits for the film, and an electronic press kit for the movie.
There's a lot of good material in here, and it appears that much of it could be quite interesting but it's just too hard to say when you don't understand the language. Some of this stuff is still worth skimming through, however, as some of the behind the scenes footage is interesting with or without being able to understand it all.
While it's a damn shame that the extra features don't have any English audio or subtitle options and the transfer could have been better, A Bittersweet Life is a nice blend of melodrama and heroic bloodshed that makes for a completely worthwhile and wholly entertaining picture in spite of the fact that it's a little derivative and a little predictable. The disc has it's good side and it's bad side but is of good enough quality that it comes highly recommended (at least until a better release comes along).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.