20 August 2005 | Chris_Docker
Entertaining enough, if not quite a Ji-woon Kim masterpiece
After Tale of Two Sisters, Ji-woon Kim's new movie has been eagerly anticipated. In his previous film, the marks of originality, intellectual challenge and superb visual style hailed the possibility of a brave new voice in Korean cinema.
A Bittersweet Life commences with similarly awesome photography and ambiance. The wind in the leaves of a tree - Is it the leaves or the wind that moves? asks the disciple of the master. Neither, he replies, it is your mind and heart that moves. Cut to La Dolce Vita, the swish bar restaurant which we are to discover is also the gangland stronghold of Sun-Woo. A single tree in the centre of the restaurant's sky lounge. The colours red and black, glossy and visually forceful in the lounge - they not only play heavily in the film but make any small deviations stand out. Lushness or delicacy is easily conveyed later in the film by colour, a respite to the bloodshed that will almost swamp us. A tinkling piano (Chopin is used as part of the score) adds a delicate counterpoint to what we know will surely be an overload of violence and mayhem.
Sun-Woo has served his boss, President Kang, faithfully for seven years and is now manager of Dolce Vita as well as Kang's right hand man. Background profits, and gang competition, focuses on innocuous little sidelines like the supply of guns or dancing girls, and which countries these should come from. Kang has a secret lover from the 'normal' world, a cellist who is much younger than he, and whom he suspects of infidelity. Kang entrusts Sun-Woo to sort it out and show no mercy. The warfare that follows goes beyond honour, beyond profit, beyond vengeance, . . . beyond any rational point in fact.
Sun-Woo is the ultimate cool bad guy. Indentured to a world of violence and expert in the use of martial arts, knives and guns, he is almost a humanised Bruce Lee who's woken up on a Tarantino set. It sounds almost too good to be true and it is. The story lines are formulaic and derivative, consisting largely of how to engineer more ingenious punch-ups, torture or revenge posturing. Light humour afforded in the contrast between suave topdogs and bumbling henchmen has been done so many times, and many of the entertaining debacles could have been borrowed from Kill Bill. But entertaining it is, on an undemanding level. Sadly it is not the work of the Master that we might have expected from Two Sisters. "The dream I had can't come true," laments the protagonist, and ironically the dreams Ji-woon Kim's fans may justifiably had don't quite come true in A Bittersweet Life, but this otherwise elegant shoot-em-up is still reasonable 'boys night out' night fare.