A Bittersweet Life: Director's Cut (KR - BD RA)
Jonathan reviews the Korean Blu-ray of his favourite Kim Jee-woon feature film
Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is no ordinary hotel manager. He is also the ruthlessly efficient right hand man of underworld boss, Kang (Kim yeong-cheol). But tough guy Kang has a weakness; his young girlfriend. Suspecting she's unfaithful, Kang orders Sun-woo to take care of the problem. When Sunwoo discovers her with another man, he uncharacteristically grants them mercy. Kang is furious and orders his gang members to hunt down Sun-woo. With nerves of steel, Sun-woo battles the gang alone. With each kill, he takes one step closer to his final confrontation with Kang. (From the Palisades Tartan synopsis).
When I was in high school, Oldboy served as my gateway film into Korean cinema. It left me craving more revenge dramas, and after watching the rest of Park Chan-wook’s trilogy it didn’t take me long to stumble upon a shady rental copy of A Bittersweet Life at a local rental shop. When I got home I immediately shoved it into the DVD player looking forward to what another Korean director had in store for me. It drew me in effortlessly with its slick cinematic style, shocking bursts of violence, and a silent but charismatic lead in Lee Byung-hun as Sun-woo. It further propelled my obsession with the genre and what the country had to offer. Many imitators and carbon copy Korean gangster films have come out since, but very few come close to its level of excellence. The Man From Nowhere is the closest I’ve seen recently.
On the surface, A Bittersweet Life is a deceptively straightforward movie. The story itself doesn’t have any wild twists and turns that set it apart in the genre, but there is a complex and emotionally withdrawn character at the center of it that makes things more interesting. The film offers small glimpses into the main character’s emotional state and frame of mind, and it’s just enough to make you want to understand him. There is a mysterious emotional force that drives him, and it never becomes perfectly clear what that is until the film’s final moments. Couple this emotionally complicated character with the intriguing parables at the open and close of the movie, and you’ve got a lot more to chew on than your average thriller. What could’ve very well been a shallow revenge drama becomes a subtly moving.
On a technical level, the movie is an absolute knockout. If you’ve seen the amazing oriental-western town sets in The Good, the Bad, and the Weird or the exhilarating showdowns in I Saw the Devil, then you know what Kim Jee-woon is capable of. The man is so confident in the technical aspect of his craft that he is often accused of being all style and no substance (which I’d argue is inaccurate). In A Bittersweet Life, his gift for choreographed onslaught leads to a thrilling getaway scene, featuring the most creative use of a cell phone battery, and one of my all-time favourite shootouts in the curiously named club, La Dolce Vita. This movie also marks one of the very few times I’ve liked the use of jump cuts. If you haven’t managed to see A Bittersweet Life yet, seek it out. You're in for a treat.
Much like Oldboy, the 35mm film stock used to shoot A Bittersweet Life doesn’t lead to the cleanest and most consistent appearance, and it isn’t bound to push the limits of the Blu-ray format. That said, this 1080p release from the Hommage Collection is by far the best this film has ever looked. I haven’t seen the Japanese Blu-ray (which has no English subs) in motion, but compared to screen captures and the Palisades Tartan UK DVD (which Mr.Powers reviewed here), this is a clear step up. Details are much sharper and colours are far more pronounced. The interior of the club where Sun-woo works is bursting with strong, red hues and scarcely placed eye-popping green plants. Some scenes have bright lights that give off an unattractive shimmer, sometimes washing out other colours, but this effect seems inherent to the film source and not the video encode. Grain is inconsistent, appearing mostly in the blacks of darker scenes, but missing in well-lit close-ups. I suspect a modest amount of DNR was used, but it’s used appropriately and never turns the characters into creepy waxy figurines.
Turn up your speaker system and maybe warn your neighbors so they know actual gunfights are not happening in your household. Or don’t, and see if you get a knock on the door. This 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is the highlight of the release, and guns in particular pack a real wallop. The final shootout of the film is especially dynamic, with loud gunfire coming at you from every which way. Even when the guns are done firing, you can feel the ring in your ear and hear the distinct crackling of walls and tiles that have been riddled with bullets. The soundtrack varies from pulsing salsa dance music to gloomy overbearing tones that have a real depth and gravity in this sound mix. Dialogue is appropriately distinguished and kept to the front speakers. The English subtitle translation is competent, but features the long-running “Say me something” typo in one of Sun-woo’s dialogues with Kang that has been present in other releases.
There are a lot of special features on this Blu-ray release, but unfortunately none of them are English-friendly. They all have Korean audio and no subtitle tracks. I can give you a description of each one, but I’m afraid I can’t grade them further than that. I can't demerit this release because the language availability is apt for the country of release, but I also can't give it a fair grade. So please consider the zero score under Extras as a "not applicable".
La Dolce Vita – Interviews (17:48, SD): Interviews with the cast members and filmmakers.
Making of ‘A Bittersweet Life’ (25:36, SD): There are two separate commentary tracks for this feature. One with the director, and one with the crew.
Style of ‘A Bittersweet Life’ is a series of featurettes, each one clocking in at around 5-10 minutes. Segments include art, music, sound, action, gun smith, special art, special effect, and CG.
Tell Me Why (21:24, SD) Another making-of type featurette that focuses on the filmmakers.
Deleted/Alternate Scenes (23:28, SD): Commentary is provided with each, but once again these are Korean features with no subs. It’s still interesting to watch the scenes. None are particularly heavy on dialogue, and their oozing with the same style and technical prowess that Kim Jee-woon excels at.
Interview with Netizen (17:21, SD): I’m not sure exactly what this feature is, but it appears to be members of the general public interviewing the director.
’A Bittersweet Life’ at Cannes (30:09, SD): A look at the Cannes premier of the film, featuring interviews and panel footage with the cast and filmmakers.
Sweet Sleep (3:32, SD): Is footage of a music recording session.
EPK is a section that includes a music video, a teaser, a theatrical trailer, and a TV-spot for the film.
Six years from release, and A Bittersweet Life still stands high in the running for best Korean gangster film, thanks mostly to Kim Jee-woon’s outrageously slick technical work and a strong performance from lead Lee Byung-hun. Importing this Blu-ray will be costly. Newcomers may want to look for a different way to see the movie, but dedicated fans can look forward to this release having the best AV presentation of the film to date. The special features are plentiful, but unfortunately they are not English-friendly.
* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 26th August 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Korean
Subtitles: English SDH, Korean, Japanese
Extras: Interviews, Making of 'A Bittersweet Life', Style of 'A Bittersweet Life', Tell Me Why, Deleted/Alternate Scenes, Interview with Netizen, 'A Bittersweet Life' at Cannes, Sweet Sleep, EPK
Easter Egg: No
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Hwang Jeong-min, Kim Roe-ha
Genre: Action, Crime and Drama
Length: 120 minutes
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