A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng) opens with a shot of leaves swaying in a summer breeze, slowly warming from black and white to color; this transition is accompanied by a noticeable drop in temperature. Though the film’s opening sequence takes place in a hotel dominated by arterial red, obsidian black, and twinkling gold and crystal chandeliers, its tenor is a cold, neutral gray. Point Blank operates along a similar baseline — both films are fairly straightforward revenge thrillers in terms of plot dynamics. The difference is that while John Boorman complicated Point Blank’s impact with dreamlike, art house aesthetics, Kim Ji-woon employs graceful, Kubrickean steadicam shots and pacing. Watching A Bittersweet Life is not unlike drifting uneasily through The Shining, where corporeal horror is as much a state of mind as it is a a facet of gangster living. In fact, I’m sure that if Kubrick had ever directed a gangster revenge flick, it would have closely resembled icy genre sandbox in which Kim plays.
Movies like this make me wonder what, if anything, conventional genre exercises have to say about real human life. Skillfully minimalist in narrative construction, the film’s only deviation from revenge story tropes is in its leisurely distance. Most tales of vengeance unfold with the lockstep precision of inevitability, but this film elevates that rote recitation with hushed reverence. For fully half the film’s running time, Kim lingers on the routines of his protagonist, Sun-woo (played by international star Lee Byung-hun, who is probably more familiar to Western audiences as the “Bad” guy in Kim’s own The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, or the underutilized asset Storm Shadow in Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra; he’s an amazing, dynamic presence, even in stillness), calmly adjusting the creases in his suit before and after dishing out beatings, driving through the city streets at night with an opaquely pensive expression, reclining in his apartment, flicking a light switch off and on in restless contemplation. Clearly, Kim wishes to indicate a maelstrom brewing under the unruffled surface of Sun-woo’s Zen garden exterior; this isn’t a novel approach, nor does the stock character of the burned-out enforcer rediscovering his humanity through love particularly approach the universality of feeling typically sought by films attempting to connect antiheroes with modern audiences. I’m not sure what my life or psychological makeup (or anyone else’s of my acquaintance) has to do with a glorified thug’s, so Kim’s gamble that his formally earnest treatment of a standard revenge yarn isn’t really rooted in the premise’s relevance to contemporary living.
Without a trace of postmodern pastiche or irony, Kim does what all great directors do with the possibilities of cinema: he uses style to highlight or enhance the themes inherent in the components of his narrative to suggest — but not elucidate — connections that are abundantly relevant to the lives of the middle class connoisseurs who are the probable target audience for a bloody action thriller.
The motif of flicking lamps on and off, for instance, operates along a similar wavelength that Spielberg expanded upon in Munich. And cellular phones, like most ubiquitous modern technology, facilitate the ability of people to talk to each other, but little to no understanding or empathy is fostered via these wireless connections. Dislocation is actually one of the standout ideas exemplified by Kim’s stylistic devices.
Communication is only another word for gamesmanship, and the roles characters play in relation to each other are subject to change in the blink of an eye or the bark of a gun. Sun-woo exercises independent judgment for the first time in his career as an enforcer when he shows compassion to his boss’s mistress after catching her having an affair with another man. Emphasizing the importance of tiny, human gestures and details, Kim depicts Sun-woo awakening to feelings of protectiveness and — in a thrice-removed kind of way — perhaps love by adding up the parts of the whole. When he listens to her play music with her string orchestra, he sits behind a glass partition, surrounded not by musicians, but by technicians, the people who adjudicate the emotions of the artists with their control boards much as Sun-woo adjudicates the vicious will of his employer with his fists.
Within scenes, Kim pays special attention to how long it takes characters physically to cross the distances between each other. The opening credit sequence of the film begins by following one of the staff of the hotel/restaurant in which Sun-woo is a manager as he hurries (though, as a hotel staff member, he mustn’t run) to find his boss, and then Kim takes us through several tracking shots following Sun-woo as he makes his way through the bowels of the hotel to a room where he delivers a rather personal ejection notice to some patrons who refuse to leave. In this scene — the first of several crackling martial arts confrontations — Sun-woo leaps up onto a table and runs toward his opponents. The geography of the room is foregrounded (as it should be in any great martial arts choreography), emphasizing how close the combat quarters are, with one of the requisite action “pauses” showing Sun-woo and his enemy facing each other through the limbs of a chandelier. Throughout the film, Kim repeatedly displays patience in his technique. More than even The Lord of the Rings, A Bittersweet Life seems intrigued by the dramatic potential — full of potent portent, as it were — of people walking from place to place in the same way that Kubrick seemed intrigued by the dreadful potential of following Danny around on his Big Wheel tricycle in The Shining. It’s the meme around which Boorman built the rhythmic advance of Walker’s footsteps at the outset of Point Blank.
This dispassionate, acute observation of the spatial relationships between environs and the bodies dueling (emotionally, physically, intellectually) within them is brilliantly encapsulated in the way Kim stages his gunfights. Most action aficionados are more familiar with the archetype of the John Woo-esque “god of guns” — a protagonist who sails through the sky, pistols ablaze, cutting scores of adversaries to bloody ribbons, a visual symphony of graceful bloodshed. A Bittersweet Life plays up the aesthetic pyrotechnics of gun battles, but its use of handgun violence is refreshingly “realistic.” There’s a lot of screaming and shooting; hundreds of rounds are expended, but barely anyone manages to hit anything with any accuracy. Modernist production design is destroyed with delicious aplomb, but the shots that miss are as much the protagonist’s as they are those of his antagonists. In this film, Sun-woo displays a definite lack of comfort with a sidearm. Fatal kills are administered up close, with barrels close enough to leave scorch marks on a victim’s starched shirt. Even with projectile weapons, contact is made from within arm’s reach. Guns barely serve a function much different from cell phones. Cell phones in this film represent the ways in which people fall apart. Guns are also arbiters: revenge is the ultimate reconciliation of irreconcilable differences.
You can see the chilliness in the vapor motif that recurs throughout the film. The opening credits evaporate like ghosts; later on steam rises from Sun-Woo in the dark of the night after he has risen (nearly) from the dead. One of the pre-climax scenes takes place on an actual ice rink, glowing ethereal blue. Ghostlike, the smoky images seem akin to the gliding camera movements, observing from a detached distance, another victim of the modern alienation that is only arbitrated by the meeting of viciously deployed kicks and punches, or the in-your-face blasts of handguns.
The physical destruction of bodies and architecture is depicted with loving attention. Kim shows a fascination with the gangster lifestyle and relishes the sumptuous trappings of impersonal wealth as much as he depicts the self-destructive cycle of vengeance with brio. Even if revenge is self-destructive, it is immensely satisfying — lovely in the way that can only be presented by a film made by a young person full of feeling for cinema, but who really only knows how to express it through genre conventions. Since Kim is bound and determined to revel in the speedy entropy of a quest of vengeance as the price paid for revenge, he fixes upon the proverbial “blaze of glory” in a decidedly romantic way. Revenge is both an arbitration and a power trip fantasy that hinges on things spinning out of control, as when a deliberately paced set piece involving a simple gun purchase evolves into the narrative fulcrum that leads to our protagonist’s fatal, reflective moment.
Reflections are another key component of the film. Many interactions take place amidst glass-adorned architecture; a pivotal scene in which Sun-Woo basks in the music of his boss’s mistress and her string section clearly defines that his relationship to her exists with a glass boundary — look, but do not touch. Ever. Indeed, the final shot of the film is literally reflective, as our protagonist shadowboxes with himself in a sort of last-minute “twist” that suggests that the whole story has been a kind of fantasy. This in turn requires the viewer to reflect on what has come before, and redefines the way we perceive and relate to Sun-Woo as a character.
One of the most profound divisions in the way different people see genre pictures revolves around a simple question: how does this relate to life as we know it? What exactly does a bloody tale of gangster vengeance have to do with anything in my comparatively humdrum existence? The relative “greatness” of genre stories, for some, hinges on how much they use genre tropes to present aspects of The Human Condition. For others, maybe the more absurd elements draw attention to the impossibly complex nuances of a surprisingly well-conceived character or performance, something that does prove that three-dimensionality can and does exist in an essentially formulaic work (and, by extension, proves that we can confuse shallowness and depth in other arenas as well). Then there are people who like to, as the expression goes, “switch off their brains,” and just soak up the spectacle of escapist fantasies that are tethered to reality only by the most slender of gossamer threads.
I’m not convinced that A Bittersweet Life ultimately functions in only one of these ways. The last moments of the film are a bit of a cop out, that most egregious of all revelations — “It was all a dream!” Yeah, okay, fine. It makes it easier to accept the film as a shallow exercise in masterfully controlled style, and enjoying the film purely as par exemplar of the revenge flick is an acceptable response. But I don’t think that a film planned and made with this level of patience and craft should be simultaneously accepted and dismissed as (here’s another hoary mind-number of a phrase) style over substance. The style is clearly so precise and consistent that the film obviously has more going on that just its genre tropes.
No, A Bittersweet Life illustrates by example that the world around us is a reflection of ourselves. Sun-Woo — the actual Sun-Woo, as opposed to the masochistic avatar that we’re led to think is Sun-Woo throughout the film — looks at his world and sees himself as a romantic antihero, not unlike the original god of guns, Chow Yun-fat’s Jeffrey in Bloodshed of Two Heroes (aka The Killer). Only in Sun-Woo’s fantasy, his isolation remains irreconcilable. He tortures himself for his own entertainment; he wants to be the cool, confident ass-kicker who goes out in a spectacular blaze of glory. If he’s living a dead-end life, why not end it in style to lend it substance? We as viewers (especially we genre fans) depend on stories of violence and pride, laden with machismo; we like to see violent behavior and murder justified and rewarded with a eulogistic stylistic approach. The motives of others tangentially justify extreme, antisocial behavior, and the perpetually isolated find immediate, physical connection — if not through, say, a phone call, then through the flow of blood and meaty crunch of slamming a mobile’s battery into a sadistic, imaginary adversary.
Through our fantasies, our films, we bridge the gaps between our impulses and our responsibilities. We acknowledge our atavism, perhaps even extolling its virtues, and receive our vicarious punishment with Zen calm. Stories of revenge are as old as human storytelling, but their trappings — the tropes — are constantly updated. Instead of identifying with waffling princes or wandering Greek demigods we project ourselves onto outlaws (who are also successful businessmen, natch). Kim’s may be the most perfect expression of the kind of style that is synonymous with revenge fantasies in the early 21st century. It’s cold, distant, measured, and punctuated with conflagrations of orgiastic collisions of flesh, metal, glass, and blood. It’s the same old story; it’s an empty catharsis, dominated by visions of concrete towers and villainous caricatures we’ve seen thousands of times; it’s formally elegant and viscerally satisfying; it’s the most bittersweet irony of all.
Even in our collective dreams, the noblest versions of ourselves can’t get always get what they want. ☕