Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a gangster, a can-do man for his powerful boss, Mr Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim), and tonight he has been called away from his dinner in the hotel Mr Kang owns to take care of a spot of bother in one of the conference rooms. He tells the gentlemen that they should leave before he counts to three, and when they fail to comply, he locks the door and sorts them out with his fists. These men were representatives of a would-be big shot in the gangster world, and Sun-woo doesn't know it but he has made an enemy tonight. However, this won't be his undoing, as Mr Kang asks him to keep an eye on his girlfriend for the next few days while he is out of town... Sun-woo's mistake is accepting the task.
You can see why A Bittersweet Life, or Dalkomhan Insaeng to give the film its Korean title, gained the following it did. It's that mixture of elegance and brutality that speaks of cool to its audience, as its leading man, dressed up in the height of Reservoir Dogs fashion, wrestles with his conscience and the love life he is forbidden; a touch of emotional resonance doesn't go amiss in this sort of thing, after all. Scripted by its director Kim Ji-woon, it's a straightforward gangster movie for the most part, but carried off with great aplomb and a sleek camera style that marks it out from its contemporaries.
You might expect that a passionate affair is on the cards, with the two lovers forced to go on the run, but Kim doesn't take that path. The first day Mr Kang is away is pretty uneventful: he instructs Sun-woo to deliver a lamp to his mistress, Hee-soo (Min-a Shin), as he seems to buy her affection with gifts, but what he really wants to know is whether she is carrying on with someone else behind his back. When Sun-woo meets her, he sees the attraction immediately, but being loyal to his boss he follows his wishes, as well as following Hee-soo around when she goes out with an unidentified man on a dinner date.
The next day, Sun-woo accompanies Hee-soo on her day, going shopping with her and carrying her cello case to take to the recording studio where she has a job. Sitting there, watching her play the instrument and hearing the melancholy music, he falls in love even if he can't admit it to himself, aware that any move he made would spell his doom. Nevertheless, it's his act of mercy when he discovers that Hee-soo's dinner date is in fact her boyfriend that sets him on the road to hell. He suggests that the two of them cover up the affair, forget about it and he will agree to say nothing to Mr Kang - but Mr Kang finds out.
It's easy to make the lead characters of action movies into superhumans, smashing up everyone who gets in the way, so it's likely to take you aback when the aspiring gangster's men show up suddenly in the previously untouchable Sun-woo's apartment and soundly beat him, taking him to a warehouse to torture him. He thinks it's because of he has slighted the gangster, but in fact it's because Mr Kang has discovered the lie. What happens next is a Point Blank tale of revenge as Sun-woo takes an enormous amount of punishment and doles out an equal dose right back at his tormentors, all to find out why he is suffering in this way. What adds a layer of poignancy is that Hee-soo never really realises the depth of affection Sun-woo has for her, even as he knows that his love is futile. Yes, it's an extremely violent film, but it's Sun-woo's unrequited feelings that make A Bittersweet Life live up to its title. Music by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jan.
[Tartan's Region 2 DVD features cast and crew interviews which mostly consist of the director apologising, Cannes Festival footage and a trailer.]