Bittersweet Life, A (HK - DVD R3)
Imagine being the best at your game. The ultimate mob enforcer, the ultimate hitman. Now meet Sun-Woo, a restaurant owner with a d...
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I am always wary of Asian movies that get compared to Infernal Affairs. The IA films comprise a now-classic, fantastic trilogy and too many subsequent, inferior productions have tried ineffectively to challenge the title. So when I heard about A Bittersweet Life and claims that it was similar to the excellent Infernal Affairs, of course I was initially dubious. Let me say at the outset, this is a fantastic new Korean crime drama and - despite my initial reservations - it is well deserving of its comparisons to Infernal Affairs and the awesome Oldboy.
Sun-Woo is a restaurant owner who also works as a hitman for a big crime boss, President Kang. Enforcing his every whim and request, his latest assignment is to monitor Kang's mistress, Hee-Soo. When suspicions are aroused over her involvement with another man, Kang instructs Sun-Woo that, if he finds proof of this, he should exact a terrible revenge upon both of the parties involved. Pretty soon Sun-Woo finds himself in this uncomfortable position, made worse because over his time investigating her, he has befriended her and maybe even fallen in love. His decision predictably leads to no end of bloodshed.
Masterfully directed in that greeny hue of many modern Asian crime thrillers, as usual, it is the cast that brings this tale together. Sun-Woo is played perfectly by Byung-Hun Lee, from J.S.A., exuding the exact calm, cool perfection that his character requires. Alongside him we get the pretty Min-A Shin, from Volcano High, in the limited role of the mistress and a wonderful turn by Yeong-Cheol Kim as the crime boss, President Kang. There are also myriad different villains of the piece, not least the opposing crime boss and his minions, all of whom come across as individually interesting characters. So with a stylishly shot, well-acted solid crime thriller, where is the downside? Well, perhaps it lies in the fact that there is simply nothing here that we have not seen before.
In my opinion, however, there is. Despite being extremely unoriginal and following a well-trodden plot, the story does somehow manage to keep you guessing throughout. Sure there's plenty of torture, betrayal and revenge, all in the standard order, but you get so wrapped up in the plight of the central character that you are often desperate to know what is going to happen next. Even if you can guess, it is almost impossible to figure out how it is going to happen, making this an exhilarating ride from start to finish. Despite all of this, I do have one slight reservation: the very final closing scene before the credits roll, which changes the tack of the entire movie and - in my opinion - almost ruins it. Still, as modern crime thrillers purporting to follow in the footsteps of masterpieces like Oldboy and Infernal Affairs, this is one of the better.
The presentation is superb. Given a broad 2.35:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer, Seoul has simply never looked this good. The detail is spot-on, maintaining clarity throughout whether on the close-up face shots or the longer, broader landscapes. There is some light grain, more evident in some scenes than others, although I never found it detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. There is also a little edge enhancement, but again it is never a problem. The colour scheme is fairly biased towards greens, as I already noted, but looks spot on for the setting with suitably crimson blood and solid blacks for shadowing.
A Bittersweet Life has similarly received an excellent audio presentation. You get the choice of two 7-channel tracks at the top of their game, both in the original Korean language with optional English subtitles that are largely comprehensible and only occasionally too briefly displayed to read. Despite listings to the contrary there is no third track in Dolby Digital 2.0. Both the DTS 6.1 ES track and the Dolby 5.1 EX mix are superb, with very little to distinguish between them. The dialogue is presented at the forefront with solid clarity and the effects range from the subtle ambient nuances, to all out rainstorms in the mid-range and full-on gun battles at the high end - all coming across extremely well. The directionality is exceptional and the score gives the rears a great deal of room for expression, really absorbing you into the story. Both tracks showcase some decent bass as well, particularly as the film snowballs to its bullet-laden conclusion.
A Bittersweet Life, like many Asian releases that I have come across recently, has been given the two-disc deluxe treatment with myriad extra features to cover just about anything you would want to know about the production. We've got deleted scenes (which actually look quite interesting), making of documentaries, commentaries and even footage from the premiere. It all looks fantastic and you could not ask for more. Well, apart from subtitles. Without them it is all a waste of time. So many superb deluxe limited director's cut platinum special editions are released with every conceivable extra to please fans - but almost all of the ones that I have come across have English subtitles for the main film but for nothing else, making the second disc about as useful as a coaster.
Fans of decent thrillers, whether Western or Asian, will not be disappointed by this solid, intelligent if by-the-numbers crime movie with an excellent cast, superb style, gritty violence and mature gunplay. If you can ignore the unnecessary tacked-on epilogue, you will not be disappointed by the rest. The video presentation is pretty damn good and the audio treatment is simply outstanding. This two-disc release has all the extras needed to complete anybody's collection but provides the only disappointment with a lack of English subtitles, rendering them worthless. Still, it's an excellent movie and well worth your time and money.
You can purchase this title for $27.99 from Yes Asia.
Review by Casimir Harlow
Release Date: 28th July 2005
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Korean, DTS ES 6.1 Korean
Subtitles: English, Korean
Extras: Two Commentaries, Making-Of Documentary, Featurettes, Interviews, Deleted Scenes, Premiere Footage
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kim Jee Woon
Cast: Lee Byung Hun, Eric Mun, Shin Min A
Length: 120 minutes
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