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Sun-Woo is a hard man. Sun-Woo works for a hard mob boss named Kang, and he is ruthlessly efficient at his job. He does what he's told. When Boss Kang tells Sun-Woo to keep watch over his young girlfriend while he takes a few days holiday, Sun-Woo asks no questions. Kang suspects that his new girl may be seeing someone else. When it turns out Kang's suspicions were accurate, Sun-Woo grants the star-crossed lovers mercy. In the criminal underworld there are no second chances.

Bittersweet Life, A
South Korea has got to be the only region of the world that gets me automatically excited about film any more. I've seen my share of sub-par work from the area, but the good to bad ratio still leans very much in favour of the former. Director Kim Jee-woon single handedly restored my personal faith in Asian ghost stories with his wonderfully baroque A Tale of Two Sisters. That film was the reason I requested this one when the review opportunity came around.

The premise of the film is one that didn't excite me, because I've already seen my share of John Woo films...and Tarentino films...and Scorsese films...and a whole slew of rip offs, copycats, and knockoffs. The troubled mob guy story has been played out before, but I loved A Tale of Two Sisters enough to give it a chance. What I discovered was that though obviously a film about crime syndicate politics, A Bittersweet Life was actually a Western. To be more precise a modern Korean Spaghetti Western, or a Kim chi Western, complete with a middle act Django style torturing of our stoic lead.

I'm guessing Kim Jee-woon is a fan of Italian cinema of the '60s and '70s, because both films I've seen from the man have shown a vibrant influence. The baroque quality of his earlier horror effort is still quite evident, now influenced by the Dogmatic Italian obsession with physically and emotionally tortured anti-heroes. Think Mario Bava meets Michael Mann, and you'll have a good idea of what the film looks like. The comparisons to Tarentino are valid in that both directors show a strong influence from the time, place, and genre. Kill Bill Volume 2 is also a modern Euro-Western. Another director who's dabbled in post post-modern Westerns is Austin's Robert Rodriguez, and the A Bittersweet Life's final shoot-out does bring back memories of Antonio Banderas engaged barroom brawls in Desperado.

Bittersweet Life, A
Unlike Woo and later progeny like Rodriguez, Kim Jee-woon brings real pain to his action scenes. For the most part the director wisely skips the usual slo-mo instant replays in favour of bold and meaty violence. During an escape that would make Batman proud, Sun-Woo scrapes an assailant's scalp against a concrete wall, and holds it while warning off other attackers. This assault made me wince, which scores the film at least one overall ranking point. The idea of beauty in violence is a nice one, but has been explored past its prime in the last forty years, so it's always nice to see film violence with real threat. Even recent horror entries like Eli Roth's Hostel don't hold an honest sense of pain with me, personally.

Lead actor Lee Byung-hun plays his stoic anti-heroic Sun-Woo cool as a cucumber, without sacrificing the character's intelligence or emotion. Lee, who I just happened to have seen in Park Chan-wook's JSA: Joint Security Area the night before I watched this film, is one of South Korea's disserving stars, a real old fashion, golden aged-Hollywood type. The rest of the cast is peppered with faces familiar to devotes of new wave Korean cinema, actors who have, in true Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western style, been hired for their faces as much as their actual talent.

The only problems with the film were its synonymity and its semi-foiled attempts at 'quirk'. Though visually grand, and well scripted, this story of an anti-hero's vengeance has been told more times than even the most studious film buff could count. The element that made Tarentino's earlier efforts memorable (though honestly I'm not a very big fan of his pre- Jackie Brown work) in the face of familiarity was the mundanely amusing dialogue, or assurance that criminals were just like the rest of us, along with unimaginably bizarre situations they come across. They had car trouble, they talked endlessly about the meaning of Madonna lyrics, and they were anally raped by psycho pawnshop owners. Kim Jee-woon, who also wrote A Bittersweet Life, tries to incorporate some of these quirky elements into his story, but for the most part they feel forced.

Bittersweet Life, A
Minor quibbles aside, I think that A Bittersweet Life may be the film to introduce sceptical and less adventurous viewers to South Korean new wave. It's not as good as the work of Park Chan-wook, it's not even Kim Jee-woon's best film, but it is consistently entertaining, emotionally engaging, action packed in an untired fashion, and the story is not difficult to follow. This film earns its thrills, and even though I could see every major character's ending half a mile off, I still thoroughly enjoyed my journey.

Video


Tartan UK has failed in the past. Wow have they failed. Their uncanny ability to produce substandard video transfers of relatively new films is legendary in the field. As I stated in my review, I'd just watched their release of JSA: Joint Security Area, which suffered substantially from a shaky, grainy, NTSC to PAL transfer. I was afraid I'd be burned again with A Bittersweet Life. Thank goodness my intuition failed me.

This is a fine transfer indeed. Deep, rich blacks, bright, vibrant reds; here we have an excellent mix of subtlety and abrasiveness. The film is mostly a dark one, and with a few exceptions low level noise and grain are minimal. The black levels during some of the driving sequences, obviously filmed on location, are a bit on the warm side, and stick out from the rest of the film. Flesh tones also occasionally show signs of chroma noise, and some close-ups contain a smidgen of colour bleeding. I'd like to see more care put into future Tartan UK releases like this one. So far their newish US incarnation has surpassed them substantially in the field, though their transfers are also not without fault.

Bittersweet Life, A

Audio


Tartan has given us a choice of DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, or Dolby Surround tracks, all in the original Korean. The Dolby and DTS tracks are both solid, and utilize some surprisingly effect surround effects. The encompassing sound of rain pouring over wet earth is beautiful. The DTS track has a little more literal punch and bang behind it. This chunky bass is apparent in the film's first fight scene, where each punch thumps the couch on impact. Gun shoots are loud and echo longingly through the surround channels.

Music cues are a little on the quiet side. I'm not sure if this is a creative decision or not, but it's too bad because the score is perfect. It reminded me of Jo Yeong-wook’s work on Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, without being derivative. The simple bits are the best, but punchy pop-infused symphonics are catchy and exciting.

Extras


This is not a loaded DVD. One might even venture to say that these extras are simply there to be advertised. In fact, advertisements are pretty much what these are. First up is a set of interviews. Running just under thirty minutes they offer little real insight into the filming process, and  Kim Jee-woon actually comes across as a bit shallow, something actor Lee Byung-hun actually makes fun of a bit. The most fascinating thing about the interviews is the series of photos behind Lee's head, which appear to be representations of injured human buttocks.

Bittersweet Life, A
This is followed by ‘A Bittersweet Life in Cannes’, which is exactly what it sounds like, footage of the cast and crew at Cannes last year. Not the most thrilling extra, but sort of cute and mercifully brief. The disc is finished off with the film's original theatrical trailer, and a series of Tartan Asia Extreme new release trailers (the usual, in other words).

Overall


A Bittersweet Life is a fine action flick, cracking even, to use the parlance of our times. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but is emotionally centred and sometimes frighteningly realistic. It's a great place for Korean cinema virgins to start, and John Woo fans sick of the director's Hollywood output may find another filmmaker to root for in Kim Jee-woon. The disc forgoes Tartan UK's tendency to settle for shoddy NTSC to PAL transfers, and boasts two fine audio tracks to boot.


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