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DVD Review: A Bittersweet Life Kicks Action Flicks In The Teeth

By Matthew Lentini | Tuesday | 12/07/2011

A Bittersweet Life takes to genre-busting the action revenge flick, hitting back at blood-lusting audiences with voracity that'll make you wince.

Like most writer-directors, Kim Jee-woon's projects are ambitious. From a relatively short directorial career so far of around ten years, he's managed to push into the fore of global cinema, directing Korea's most expensive movie to date three years ago, 'The Good, the Bad, the Weird.'

That's not to show him up as some Hollywood-style movie churner - in fact he's sought to be the opposite, challenging filmic norms by taking the familiar and using it against his audience in visually gorgeous packages.

A Bittersweet Life takes to genre-busting the action revenge flick that parades through Hong Kong, Hollywood and Korean cinema, hitting back at blood-lusting audiences with voracity that'll make you wince. Audiences crowd in expecting a tirade of consumable violence with uplifting rewards - they get the violence down to a tee, but it won't deliver the satisfying denouement of a hero getting his brutal comeuppance. As it turns out, you're pretty sadistic for wanting that, and Kim Jee-woon tells you as artfully as possible.

Jee-woon's metacritique of the revenge genre sees the calm, calculating and reliable mafia enforcer and hotel manager Kim Sun-woo (played by the award-winning Lee Byung-hun, who just so happens to have recently won a new award for his role in director Kim Jee-woon's most recent film) personally take on a three day supervision of his boss' much younger girlfriend.

He is caught between duty and conscience when he finds the young, lovelorn woman with another man, under orders to kill the two if they were caught out. He's a killer with a soul as his mechanical urge to follow his orders become are stunted by the lustful girl. He lets it slide, sweeps everything under the rug, and hell breaks loose.

Sun-woo becomes the pariah of the crime underworld, and the further he struggles, the deeper he sinks. The inevitable quest for revenge against rival gangsters and his own people who seek his end ensues, leading him to unrepented murder despite his attempt at being conscionable.

Shots are beautifully mapped out, as per the extravagant, gangster flick norm, while action sequences are expertly choreographed. Though it's interspersed with unrepentantly graphic, static shots of point blank murder rather than the senseless, almost playful fighting that comes from typical, glorified revenge movies. When a searing bullet breaks through a skull or bones are shattered under the weight of a wrench, it's disturbing and gut-wrenching rather than engrossing.

Whether it's in visual allegory or its ironic twists of vengeance, A Bittersweet Life gives the sweet and sour of the man-on-a-mission story - a truly bittersweet revenge picture. Kim Jee-woon is a director who knows his place in modern cinema, and slots his film perfectly into contemporary clichés. How he subverts these clichés, though, makes him stand out.

The film's recently been released on Blu-ray in Japan and, like most CJ Entertainment products, this should mean it's heading back to its native Korea and other international shores on Blu-ray in the near future. For now, it can be picked up locally on DVD through its Australian distributor, Madman Entertainment.

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