Maybe it's a phase, or maybe it's because only the cream of foreign cinema ever makes it to our shores, but every time I see a new South Korean film I am blown away by how different it is from the one I saw before and yet the same startling combination of extreme violence, visual style and emotional pull. So, as the DVD was released this week, allow me to unabashedly and unreservedly recommend A BITTERSWEET LIFE, directed by the same guy who brought us the outstanding horror flick, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS.
The plot looks like something from a hackneyed gangster flick. Mr Kang is a top mob boss who hires slick goons in well-tailored suits to run a string of bars and hotels, dealing in whores and other such illegality on the side. Indeed, most of the film takes place at night, in beautifully appointed night-spots lit by neon. One of Kang's most trusted henchman is a ridiculously good-looking and utterly self-composed young man called Sun-Wu. When we first meet Sun-Wu he is enjoying a quiet gourmet meal in an empty restaurent. He is interrupted by a call to "deal with" some troublemakers in a private room of the bar. Instead of rushing off to see what is happening, he quietly takes another bite of his dessert. Almost resignedly, he walks down to the backroom where he kicks the shit out of the troublemakers. He is a killing machine, but a diffident one at that.
Kang appoints Sun-Wu to find out if Kang's much younger girlfriend, Hee-su, is being unfaithful to him. Moreover, Sun-Wu is to "deal with her" if appropriate. Now, all jaded film-fans know that if an old man sends a young loyal henchman to guard his squeeze, the younger guy is going to fall in love with the girl, thus compromising his loyalty to his mentor. The twist in A BITTERSWEET LIFE is that Sun-Wu is not entirely sure what is happening to him when he meets Hee-Su. She is surely beautiful and elegant (it's the same chick from that crazy martial arts extravaganza Volcano High) and when he catches her in flagrante he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger. Instead, he asks her to forget about her boyfriend. She replies that you cannot just forget about love. At this point, Sun-Wu looks confused - as if amazed at the existence of such a thing as love while simultaneously struck by an inability to understand or feel it. Even at the end of the film, when asked why he couldn't pull the trigger, he remains inarticulate.
After this, the movie unwinds in the expected way. Mr. Kang feels betrayed by Sun-Wu's inability to carry out the punishment, and Sun-Wu is also caught in a plot concerning a rival gang-leader called Mr. Baek. We have all the "usual" stunningly-designed and stylishly-photographed extreme violence, including an unforgettable burial sequence and the most impressive close-range stabbing since CHOPPER. What elevates these plot machinations above the voyeuristic or just plain nasty is that we see Sun-Wu gain a real understanding of his feelings for Hee-Su and the life he has led. There are no sentimental last-minute Hollywood endings - just a painful and moving recognition of the cruelty of life. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it - a thought-provoking meditation on the simultaneous beauty and futility of existence, coupled with shoot-outs that would make Tarantino jealous.
I love this film.
A BITTERSWEET LIFE was shown at Cannes 2005 and was on release for about a nanosecond in the UK in January. It is now available on Region 2 DVD.