One late autumn night, the disciple awoke crying. So the master asked the disciple, “Did you have a nightmare?” “No.” “Did you have a sad dream?” “No,” said the disciple. “I had a sweet dream.” “Then why are you crying so sadly?” The disciple wiped his tears away and quietly answered, “Because the dream I had can’t come true.” Opening with the above mentioned lines, A Bittersweet Life is a violent fable from a master filmmaker, who after his successful take on different genres of cinema, enjoys a celebrated cult following today, plus this first masterpiece of his is a cinematic jewel from start to finish that sets an entirely new standard for gangster films in South Korean cinema.
Painting a remarkable portrait of the lifestyle & ethical codes of Korean mobs, A Bittersweet Life tells the story of a high-ranked mobster named Kim Sun-woo, who has been an extremely loyal enforcer for Kang, his boss, since the very beginning. When Kang asks him to keep an eye on his mistress while he is out-of-town on a business trip & either terminate her or inform him if she is found dating someone else, Sun-woo unquestionably agrees to abide by but soon finds himself in an unwanted situation & makes a moral choice that soon turns his life upside down, thus setting in motion a chain of events that eventually culminates with an unforgettable & bloody finale.
Written & directed by Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird & I Saw the Devil), the direction is very slick & stylish from the opening moments & the screenplay is brilliantly written too with Jee-woon properly weighing each & every sequence on script before executing them on the film canvas. Cinematography presents a nicely balanced camerawork & captures images evocatively. Editing is near-perfect for the most part of its 2 hours long story except for the final wrap up moments which in my opinion could’ve been shortened but then, it also takes away nothing from the sheer jaw-dropping experience the rest of the film provides. And the music is undoubtedly a huge plus for the drama, action & suspense it accompanies within the film.
Coming to the performances, A Bittersweet Life features some truly mesmerizing works but the most impressive amongst its ensemble cast turned out to be none other than Lee Byung-hun. Byung-hun has steadily risen as one of Korean top film stars today & is an immensely talented actor with a magnetic screen presence. Here, he plays Kim Sun-woo; an unquestionably loyal enforcer who has served his cold & calculating boss for many years & is appalled to find out that years of service means nothing to Kang & one small mistake could cost him his life. Taking a steady approach & never over-doing what is asked of him, Lee Byung-hun delivers a memorable performance that he should be proud of & the supporting work by others is no slouch either.
On an overall scale, A Bittersweet Life is an incredible & indelible treat for fans of its genre. The plot is blazingly original & powerfully narrated, the action is downright violent & viciously engaging, the performances are very strong & characters are completely fleshed out, and it deals with the ethics of Korean mafia in a stunning & highly realistic manner as well. Guaranteed to please not only the fans of crime dramas but almost every cinema lover, A Bittersweet Life is one of the best films of its year, one of the greatest South Korean films of all time & one of world cinema’s finest crime dramas that’s as razor-sharp in its approach as it is unforgiving in its climactic moments. An undisputed masterpiece by all standards, Kim Jee-woon’s take on Korean mafia & how it clashes with personal morality comes strongly recommended.