THN’s Korean Cinema Style Week 4: Kim Jee Woon – A Bittersweet Life

A Bittersweet Life Main BWWith Gangnam Style destroying the charts the world over, we will soon see a second wave of the Korean invasion taking place. Three of South Koreas most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors have their English language debuts set for next year. Kim Jee Woon (THE LAST STAND), Park Chan Wook (STOKER), and Bong Joon Ho (SNOWPIERCER) have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. Starting with the films of Kim Jee Woon, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.

Director: Kim Jee Woon

Year:  2005

Cast: Lee Byung Hyun, Kim Young Cheol, Shin Min Ah, Hwang Jung Min, Jin Goo,

Plot:  Sun Woo is an enforcer at a top hotel. He must also run errands for his gangland boss, one of which is to spy on his boss’ young lover. When Sun Woo listens to his heart and doesn’t follow orders, his world falls apart around him.

Yet another genre hop for Kim Jee Woon, sees the director applying his talents to the gangster genre. As you can imagine, A BITTERSWEET LIFE is often lost in the sea of Korean revenge dramas, but stands out due to the way Kim crafts each individual frame with the care of an artist truly enjoying his craft. There are also those snippets of unexpected humour that may seem absurd upon reflection, but create an aura of realism at the time.

The film starts with Sun Woo (Lee) enjoying a beautifully presented dessert in a fancy restaurant high above the filth on the streets. After a call comes in asking for Sun Woo’s assistance, we see him descend into the bowels of the underworld. At first he passes beautifully lit hallways, which at times seem almost alien in their cleanliness. By the time he reaches the lower levels of the hotel he has to be quick on his toes to avoid dripping water from landing on his impeccable suit. This excellently crafted scene sets the tone perfectly and is a huge indication to where our protagonist will most likely end up. He starts on high, but by the end of the film he will no doubt find it hard to avoid that drip.

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His task is to simply remove some unwanted guests from the hotel. Being reluctant, the guests soon face Sun Woo’s wrath. Sun Woo shows himself to be ever so calm and methodical at this point. He politely requests that the intruders leave but they refuse. The tension rises when Sun Woo asks his aid to lock the door. It’s obvious at this point that we are in for something special. Sun Woo is an expert martial artist, but also knows when to allow his panache to give way to his brutal force. As quickly as the fight escalates, it’s soon over, and without breaking a sweat Sun Woo leaves and merely straightens his cuffs.

Sun Woo then attends a meeting with Kang (Kim), his boss, and a man he is frighteningly loyal to. Like many gangster films, A BITTERSWEET LIFE questions the boundaries of loyalty, and how far one can truly follow orders. Sun Woo is given the task of following Kang’s young mistress, and if he finds she is unfaithful, he is ordered to kill her. When Sun Woo first meets the young mistress, Hee Soo (Shin), we see his reaction before we see her. As he studies her, we see quick close-ups of her innocent nature as she pushes her wet hair back behind her ears. It’s obvious that Sun Woo is immediately enchanted by her. However, it isn’t just a simple case of falling in love, it’s more of a sudden realisation as to how perfect and pure the world can be. As Sun Woo follows Hee Soo, Kim recreates the classic film noir genre with brightly lit streets, and gentle music as Sun Woo lurks in the darkness.

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We soon discover that the men exited from Kang’s hotel were in fact members of a rival gang. We meet Baek (Hwang), who is almost the antithesis of Sun Woo. His violence is a sudden explosion with no restraint. He brutally beats one of his own men, and it’s clear of the problems that will arise for Sun Woo. Sun Woo’s stubborn attitude makes any kind of reconciliation nothing but a dream, and this is one of the strengths of Kim’s gangster masterpiece. We see the character grow in so many respects, but are powerless to prevent his eventual fall. The moments he shares with Hee Soo reveal more and more of Sun Woo’s humanity. Especially telling is when he watches one of her music recitals. After she laughs inappropriately at one of her conductor’s comments he laugh causes Sun Woo to smile. A confrontation with Baek leaves Sun Woo frustrated which is when he discovers Hee Soo’s lover. Moved by their love and Hee Soo’s protection of her boyfriend, Sun Woo gives the couple an ultimatum. Never see each other again, and Kang won’t have to find out.

As Sun Woo drives into the night, he is accosted by some boy racers causing some mischief. It’s one of those moments we as the audience love. We know exactly how dangerous Sun Woo is, and that he is not in the mood to be playing silly buggers. It’s a case of the annoying characters getting their comeuppance, and us being able to wallow in the brilliance of it. It’s darkly humourous, but also reminds us of what a weapon Sun Woo can be. Later that night Sun Woo is approached by a messenger of Baek, and is told a simple sorry will make all his problems go away. It’s that one moment in a narrative that can be immensely conflicting for the viewer. We know that it’s in Sun Woo’s best interest to apologise, but we also want him to live up to the strong and ruthless persona he has presented us with up until now. Pride truly does come before the fall.

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Sun Woo is soon kidnapped and tortured by Baek’s gang. Hung from a meathook, we see Sun Woo in a whole new light. His bravado abandons him as he vomits at the sight of a knife that will be used to gut him like a fish. It is also one of the points where Kim inserts some humour as an old Korean lady mops up the blood that drips from Sun Woo’s body. Luckily, or not so much, Sun Woo is handed over to Kang who has discovered his cover-up of Hee Soo’s affair. Beaten and bloodied, it’s hard to tell if Sun Woo is crying or if the rain is just forcing the drops of blood to roll down his cheek. Kim gives us some beautifully dark shots at this point, such as Sun Woo surrounded by men with black umbrellas. Knelt down in the mud, he is incredibly vulnerable. We see exactly how strong Sun Woo is as he is buried alive and manages to dig his way out, only to be subjected to more punishment. Kim isn’t afraid to show us our protagonist at his lowest though, as Sun Woo screams in fear, it’s something you wouldn’t see in a lot of similar films, as it runs the risk of losing respect for the lead character. I find it has the complete opposite effect, and makes him more human and relatable.

Sun Woo does escape captivity in a blistering display of violence and fantastic choreography. Despite being beaten down, we have no doubt that this character could escape. It’s summed up perfectly when we see Kang, so shocked at the news, crush a glass in his hand. It seems to shout that Sun Woo can cause his enemies to bleed without even being near them. From there Sun Woo launches on his quest for vengeance. Shown as tough, but vulnerable, we’re now behind him more than ever. He decides to stock up on weaponry in a superbly tense and funny scene, where the arms supplier discovers Sun Woo’s true identity, but the pair must assemble their guns before shooting. Just a little touch such as that shows how Kim can take your average scene and give it a whole new spin. The violence ascends to new heights and the brutality is always entertaining but also very powerful. The final shoot-out is something of pure cinematic art. Kim dispenses with the rulebook, as it is both a stunning display of choreography and also quite messy. Villains don’t die in the order you would expect, and you can see these characters fighting for their lives. You could give anyone of these gangsters a backstory, and none of them come off as simple cannon fodder.

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A BITTERSWEET LIFE continues Kim on his path to perfection. His ability to conform and transcend the genre he is exploring is one of the reasons his films are so popular. By following the rules to a certain degree he creates familiarity and accessibility, but he also gives us something new. But it isn’t merely Kim’s show. Lee gives a striking performance as Sun Woo. There is something classical and silent in his portrayal, where his face always reveals his true feelings. It happens gradually as we see a determined and stoic man broken down, before building himself up yet again. Here is a revenge drama where we root for the ‘hero’ but see how he continuously lets his pride get in the way. It’s also a distant love story, as we are constantly aware of the profound affect Hee Soo has had on Sun Woo, even though her involvement is very limited in the latter half of the film. As Sun Woo faces Kang in front of a sign that read ‘La Dolce Vita’ (The Good Life), it’s clear to see how a life of crime is anything but, and a laugh that can make you smile is something worth fighting for.

What To Take To THE LAST STAND? The action is what Kim needs to bring forward for his first Hollywood effort. The brutal violence, matched with recognisable characters will create something that Schwarzenegger’s films often lack. I’m not expecting the serious or dramatic tone, but let’s have some of the wicked humour that punctuates the action please.

THE LAST STAND is released on 18th January 2013 in the US and 25th January 2013 in the UK. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Genesis Rodriguez.

Join us next week for a look at another Kim Jee Woon classic. You can find all the articles in the series here.

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Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.