A Bittersweet Life. Another Korean drama. Another Korean drama about organized crime. Another GOOD Korean drama about organized crime. I honestly don't know how they keep doing it; South Korea is just dominating the Asian film industry today like Hong Kong did about a decade ago. Whatever, I don't care where they come from, just as long as movies like this continue to get made I'm happy.
Like most mobster movies the plot is fairly simple, yet brutal. Usually in these things the story is about somebody fucking with somebody they shouldn't have, and then some man-made retribution is distributed back upon their ass. In A Bittersweet Life LOTS of people fuck with people they shouldn't have, and LOTS more get fucked up even more in the eventual payback, and all of it is simply sick, yet fascinating to watch.
We start things off on a high note by being introduced to Kim Sun-woo. Sun-woo is a top of the line bad-ass enforcer for Kang, a powerful mob boss who owns a swanky hotel and restaurant in downtown Seoul. The opening scene involves Sun-woo quietly eating a rich-looking dessert confectionary in the restaurant La Dolce Vita at the top of Kang's hotel, while the staff around him closes up and cleans the place for the night. Before he's come even close to finishing his delicious dish a nervous young man approaches him and whispers into his ear that there's trouble and that he's needed. Annoyed, Sun-woo quietly leaves his seat and calls upon one of his subordinates to follow him to (what looks like) a fancy and expensive karaoke room in the building. There they encounter 3 lower-class gangster wannabes who "don't want to leave" despite it being quite late and the place being closed. They're drunk, ugly, and apparently very smug and stupid seeing as they don't react at all when Sun-woo generously gives them 3 full seconds to depart "before..." As soon as Sun-woo counts to 3, the MAJOR ass-kicking begins.
The three thought-they-were tough guys get their balls stomped in spectacular fashion in a brutal beating dished out mostly by Sun-woo. Oh, and that's one of the beautiful things about this movie: The action. It's always terrible (yet awesome) to behold, but never over the top. When damage is dealt out (and it is, to all sides) it's painful, and the damage sticks with the people involved throughout the rest of the movie. No miraculous recoveries from stabbings, bullet wounds, or hand-smashings — once fucked up, always fucked up. And when characters get a hold of guns and shoot for the first time in their lives, they NEVER hit what they're aiming at, instead causing about 500% more damage (collateral or intentional) than they initially meant. Beautiful!
Anyway, after the karaoke pounding, old man Kang and Sun-woo discuss the important (mobby) matters at hand (while being interrupted at their classy dinner by uber-douche Mun-suk — who's supposed to be in charge of security in the hotel and who should have been on hand the previous night to handle the "situation" himself). There's talk of Baek, a rival mob boss (whose moron son's men caused the ruckus I just talked about), Hee-soo (Kang's young musician mistress), and loyalty to the family. Kang brushes off Baek and his son as inconsequential, but he's really concerned about Hee-soo. See, Kang's leaving the country for a little while and he wants Sun-woo to keep an eye on his (30 to 40 years his junior) girlfriend in his absence. Kang thinks she's cheating on him and his shriveled up balls, and wants Sun-woo to make sure that she's not... Or if she is to kill both her and the other man. Loyalty is Kang's big thing, and he warns Sun-woo that even if he does 100 things right to gain somebody's trust, it just takes one mistake to destroy it all. If you can't see this as foreshadowing then I think you've never seen a mob movie before, or (and) you're dumber than bat guano.
Not that this thing is clichéd at all... Well, there are some storylines that start out as clichés in this film, but they're soon twisted into something new. For example (SPOILERS): Sun-woo hounds Kang's girl for a few days (following her to her job as a cellist, helping her shop, etc.), and eventually discovers, yes, she's boinking some other dude on the sly (well, she's kind of obvious about the whole thing [because she's so fucking dumb], but you get the point). Despite his boss' direct orders, he doesn't kill either of the young (retarded) lovers, he just warns them to stop it or they WILL die. Well, he tells them this after beating the ever living shit out of the pussy boyfriend in front of her.
Now Kang eventually finds out, but he doesn't take his anger out on the girl, instead he turns his entire organization against his most loyal trooper, Sun-woo. Sun-woo gets put through the goddamn ringer after this. He gets tossed around between a couple of gangs, hung up like a pinata, sliced, beaten, stabbed, bled, and his hand bashed in before finally getting buried alive in a shallow grave. All Kang wants to know is WHY Sun-woo didn't follow his orders. Sun-woo tells him that he thought it would be for the best for all those involved... The girl and her lover would never see each other again, and nobody had to die. Kang doesn't buy it and seems to believe that Sun-woo fell in love with Hee-soo. In Kang's eyes this would be the worst kind of betrayal seeing as Sun-woo is young, tough, uber-cool, and probably a better lay than the old fart ever could be (Kang probably doesn't even know what "The Flying Camel" or "The Bismarck" maneuvers even are, let alone how to personally enact them). This pushes Kang over the small edge that he was on, and that's when a good portion of the previously mentioned torturing takes place, but since that happens at only the halfway point of the movie, you know that Sun-woo somehow escapes, and then we get a full hour of Kill Bill-like retribution with some of the most realistic and horrible scenes of beautiful violence ever put to film. All of the previously introduced players — including the Baek gang and Mun-suk — along with some new characters introduced late in the flick, play a heavy roll in the last kick-ass act. Oi!
But I digress, my main point of this "not being cliché" comes near the end when we get a fantastic view of Sun-woo's mind when he himself wonders why he didn't kill either the girl or the boyfriend... It wasn't out of infatuation with her appearance (she wasn't the hottest Asian chick ever), or because he saw the inner beauty that made her glow (or some such crap), but just because of one thing that she inadvertently did in front of him that made him happy, and caused his first and only smile in the entire picture. This revelation isn't even shoved down the viewers' throats either, it's just implied. Imagine that, a movie director with some tact. Hmmmm.
Anyway, beyond that there's the sweet cinematography and the well-shot action scenes (yes, back to the action scenes). The Koreans (like the Hong Kongese before them) fucking know how to do fight scenes, I'll tell you what. No sissy one second cuts. They pull the camera back a little and let you witness the carnage and brutality in all its uninterrupted glory. Oh, and A Bittersweet Life has the funniest, most tense "gun race" I've ever seen. And this flick has a lesson to it — no, not "vengeance only leads to more vengeance," but "Don't ever fucking get involved with the mob in Korea." Sounds simple enough, but according to every Korean movie I've ever seen apparently half of Seoul is on the mob pay sheet.
This was really disappointing to me. The only female character in this thing was a trampy hussy who was having an affair behind her boyfriend's back. Okay, maybe I would too if I were in her shoes seeing as I thought that she was that old guy's daughter the first time I saw her, and not his girlfriend... Maybe his granddaughter... Anyway, not the best image that I would want young, impressionable girls to get about their place in the world. (Note from the Rossman: Jesus! Is Jaime implying that she thinks this would be a good movie for kids EXCEPT for the depiction of women in it?)
Revenge is sweet, mothafucka, but please, all you honkey Asian folk out there, if you gonna participate in a nice cold dish of it, plan it out a little better than this foo'. Sun-woo really din' know what the FUCK he was doing half the time. Yeah, he was a bad ass and all, but he could have been so much mo' a bad ass had the fucka actually written out a list and decided the best fuckin' course of action to killin' all his mothafuckin' enemies. The number one item on his list should have been "don't get yo self killed, bitch."
I once made myself a revenge list a long time ago. Number one on the list was "Don't die, G." Number two was "Find out where Cokehead Ramon's little sister goes to school, and what time it gets out." Number five was "Steal 5 pitbulls, lock them up in a pen with no food for 5 days, pay little Shonjay Jefferson to poke them with a stick for a few hours each day." Number eight was, "Borrow 10 bodybags from the city morgue (they'll get them back)." Number fifteen was "steal 3 gallons of lemon juice and a baggie of cheap crack rock." And number twenty-one was "After lighting the car on fire, pay neighborhood kid to say he saw Fast James dumping the bodies in the reservoir." I'll tell you one thing, those meticulous plans kept me outta prison, and they made sure that Old Nigerian Xantra never fucked with me ever again. Mothafucka should fry for steppin' on my brand new $200 Nikes like that!