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A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng)

July 31, 2007

A Bittersweet Life begins with a beautiful shot of a willow tree, it’s fabulous bright green leaves shifting in waves across the screen. A voice speaks:

One spring day, a young disciple noticed branches blowing in the wind. He asked his master, “Are the branches moving themselves or is it the wind?”
Without lifting his head to see, the master responded, “The movement is caused by neither wind nor branches, it is your heart and the mind.”

And so, from this enigmatic openning a thoroughly remarkable and memorable journey begins.

Kim Sunwoo (the simply extraordinary Byung-hun Lee) is a fixer, an enforcer for big time nightclub owner and all round crime kingpin Mr Kang. He’s bloody good at what he does. He wears a black suit and a white shirt and those are the colours he devolves every situation down to. The sheer containment in his demeanour is palapable. Mr Kang points him at problems and they’re resolved. When he goes to sleep at night, he lays there and switches the light on, then off, then on, then off. The black and white re-affirmed for another day.

One day, Mr Kang tells him he his off to Shanghai for the week and asks him to keep an eye on a girl he has feelings for. If there is a problem, he says, take care of it. There is a problem, and Kim doesn’t take care of it. The girl is beautiful, and she affects him. She also has a secret lover. Kim is on the verge of destroying the young man, but stops. He does something he’s never done before and compromises on the punishment. It’s from this moment of seeing the world in shades of grey that the movie goes up a gear and turns very dangerous indeed for our young protagonist.

Inside Kang’s set-up there are factions dealing with other syndicates. This fractures an otherwise peaceful arrangement. When a local small-time player is insulted by having his henchman beaten up on Kang’s property a further seam begins to crack and open. Kim’s brief moment of compromise with the girl, his previous dealings with Kang, and his legacy of fronting up to other tough guys means that he is in the middle, and that’s not a good place to be. Suddenly, everybody wants him dead, and in an awful beating and burying alive scene (look away) dead is precisely what you think he’s become.

Only, he’s made of sterner stuff, and when that black and white attitude kicks in, the face sets and the body tenses, and, well, you know this isn’t going to end happily for anyone.

The action scenes in A Bittersweet Life are exemplary. There are no absurd hollywood pyrotechnics here, just plain, bone-cracking brutality; and although martial arts are used they’re done as a (very) brief complement to the armoury of handguns, which form the major part of how the people in the story settle their differences.

At the end, the stand-off between all parties is cataclysmic. Kim, Mr Kang, everyone, they all clash in a loud but beautifully choreographed finale. It’s operatic stuff.

And underpinning this is an unexpected gravitas. There’s a world of pain and unrealised depth behind Kim’s eyes. His life of sorting out other people’s problems has taken its toll on him, and with that step outside the well-trammelled lines his humanity has risen up, and he’s paid the price. As he faces his destruction he acknowledges it, and the ending is as tragic and sad as anything I can recall in what is ostensibly an ‘action’ movie.

One late autumn night, the disciple awoke crying. So the master asked the disciple, “Did you have a nightmare?”
“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.”

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