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February 17, 2011

For the Love of Film (Noir): A Bittersweet Life

A Bittersweet Life 1.jpg

Dalkomhan insaeng
Kim Ji-woon - 2005
Jin Sun Media All Region DVD

Coming in between the attention grabbing A Tale of Two Sisters and the crowd pleasing The Good, The Bad and The Weird, I can't understand why A Bittersweet Life has no U.S. distribution in any format. There are some cultural nuances, to be sure, but nothing that would make this film difficult to understand. What makes Kim a filmmaker of interest is his jumping from genre to genre successfully.

The basic story is classic film noir about a mob boss, his girlfriend, and the trusted right-hand guy who's been asked to look after the girlfriend. Just a glimpse of a woman's legs is enough to signal that things are going to turn out badly for everyone. Sun-woo works as a hotel manager, and also enforcer for the gangster Kang. Before leaving for a business trip, Kang asks Sun-woo to look after Kang's young girlfriend, Hee-soo. Kang suspects Hee-soo of seeing someone else. Sun-woo meets with Hee-soo on behalf of Kang, and also follows her secretly at night. Meanwhile, the forcible ejection of a trio from a rival gang from the hotel escalates to a point where Sun-woo is the target of both the rival gang and Kang's team. Even if the story about shifting loyalties and revenge seems familiar, it is in the way Kim shapes the story that makes it unique.

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Kim is something of a visual virtuoso such as the series of traveling shots through the corridors of the hotel. In one scene, members of the rival gang beat up Sun-woo in his own apartment, a scene made more kinetic with lit shots alternating with blackness, continuing a visual pattern of Kim lying on his couch, mindlessly flicking his lamp on and off. In another scene, Sun-woo fights off members of his own gang, getting hold of a car which he uses as a means both of attack and escape. There is a Spanish flavor to the music used, as if what we are watching is a bull fight, with Sun-woo as the angry bull.

In an interview with Paolo Bertolin, Kim discusses this film as his version of Film Noir: "I just wanted to explore the noir genre, tell the story of this character, and tackle the themes that you see in it. By bringing together these needs, the end result is something quite different from anything I have done before. Yet such an outcome is not due to my choosing for a departure, but just to the necessity of finding a style that better suited the genre and storytelling specificities."

Where Kim's film is most like Film Noir is that the lead character is a solitary figure whose only satisfaction appears to be in doing his work. Before leaving for Shanghai, Kang asks Sun-woo if he has a girlfriend, or has even fallen in love. Like many classic noir films, the man's life is irrevocably upended when he meets "the girl". What is different here is that Sun-woo's feelings for Hee-soo remain unstated until near the very end, in a very indirect manner. What is most similar to classic noir is that the character of Sun-woo, like many noir protagonists, finds himself in a situation that he ultimately has no control over, that becomes increasingly chaotic and violent. With posh settings and facades of corporate respectability, A Bittersweet Life made me think of the iconic neo-Noir, Point Blank, particularly when Sun-woo, like Walker, seems to come back from the dead to get even with all who have wronged him.

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More bitter and sweet Film Noir is to be found at Ferdy on Film and Self-Styled Siren. Definitely sweet are contributions made to the blogathon link for saving the classic The Sound of Fury, in conjunction with The Film Noir Foundation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 17, 2011 08:00 AM


It is a Korean "Point Blank", isn't it? I love this film, great cinematography and direction - it was as relentless as any thing I've seen, and very well done noir. Kim is a wonderful director, I love his stuff. Great post!

Posted by: Vanwall at February 17, 2011 11:49 AM

Thank you for the introduction to what sounds like a really cool movie. South Korean cinema is going through a great period.

Posted by: Joe Thompson at February 17, 2011 11:44 PM