June 25, 2012

Look East Film Festival: A BITTERSWEET LIFE

How can you not want to go to a film festival with kimchi on the poster?

Day 1: The Films

"You can do a hundred things right, but it only takes one mistake to destroy everything": Kim Ji-woon's A BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005)

Kim Sun-woo (Byung Hun Lee) is the manager/house detective/enforcer for an upscale hotel managed by Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol), a paranoid, ruthless and uncompromising gang boss. Sun-woo is an impeccably stylish killer who, when not cracking skulls, enjoys sipping espresso and wearing finely tailored suits. He doesn’t even get his hair mussed when beating down thugs.

In A Bittersweet Life, he’s like a Korean James Bond, all smooth moves and deadly precision. Part of this image is due to Byung Hun Lee’s absurd handsomeness; although a very accomplished actor, the fact that Lee is so good-looking seems impossible not to comment on. Lee joins fellow gorgeous actor Alain Delon in Le Samourai as an example of the passive, deadly, and doomed noir protagonist. But bad times are a-brewin’. When Kang suspects his young girlfriend Hee-soo is cheating on him, he assigns Sun-woon to watch her, report back his findings, and if need be, eliminate the girl and her lover.

It is exactly an old school film noir plot. The protagonist is trapped from the very beginning.

He also has to deal with a rival punk gang boss and his stupid fellow hotel enforcer Mun-suk. The truth is, although Sun-woo is powerful muscle, he’s a piss-poor detective. He has a short temper that erupts all too often; he can’t tail Hee-soo worth a dime (he sits in a car across from her hours for hours on end and doesn’t even duck when she looks his way); when he finally confronts Hee-soo and her male companion, all he has to do is ask her what their relationship is—maybe it’s all a misunderstanding? But he doesn’t do that. He lets his rage (and burgeoning lust for Hee-soo) get in the way.

Classic film noir sap, always fallin’ hard for the wrong dame. So Sun-woo lets Hee-soo and her lover go, double-crossing his boss and triggering a series of increasingly violent events. Sun-woo has some pretty explosive anger management issues he takes out on some rice rocket, drag-racing punks. The man’s rage is furious and terrifying—and ultimately self-destructive. One moment of unadulterated badassery: the oly thing Sun-woo keeps in his trunk? A metal baseball bat.

When Mr. Kang returns, Sun-woo’s life begins to unravel. He gets beat up real good by some thugs working for another gangster who wears glasses and a bucket hat who I will dub Hat & Glasses for our nominal purposes here. What the hell does Hat & Glasses have against Sun-woo? In true film noir fashion, it seems he’s plunged headlong into a pile of shit and now everyone, enemies known and unknown, are out to get him.

Turns out Mr. Kang was behind it all. He knew Sun-woo lied about taking care of Hee-soo and her boyfriend and sets out to systematically dismantle his life by way of revenge.

They break his fingers and then bury him alive, which seems a little harsh to me.

The burial and resurrection sequence is a little bit of the good ol’ Korean ultraviolence: pure exploitation joy with intense camera zooms, jazzy, spaghetti Western-infused Spanish guitar cues, and exaggerated, kung-fu SFX with every punch and kick. Of course, our hero escapes. This bravura sequence is the film’s most impressive, and its most disruptive. It’s a clear homage to Tarantinoesque excess. Director Kim Ji-woon has said A Bittersweet Life was heavily influenced by Kill Bill, an influence that is pervasively obvious throughout the film.

The burial scene marks the film’s high point, but everything after that gets a little fuzzy and unfocused. Characters disappear and reappear seemingly at random and it’s difficult to keep track of who is who and who is after what and why. For the first time, Kim includes some scenes of broad comedy and the film undergoes several quick mood changes, most of which didn’t work for me.

A Bittersweet Life does a total reversal: now it’s Sun-woo’s quest for revenge on Kang and all the people who betrayed him and ruined his life. The enforcer goes rogue, engaging in a series of double-cross deals with the Russians to acquire an arsenal of weapons and boatloads of cash to fuel his revenge fantasy.

One by one, Sun-woo tracks down his enemies and eliminates them. One of the most memorable tete-a-tetes takes place on an empty hockey rink. It’s scenes like these that remind us never to bring a knife to a gunfight; the image of blood pooling on ice has rarely been so beautiful.

In the final shootout, Kim borrows liberally from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (a man’s fingers are shot off, among other things). Sun-woo just decides to kill everybody, facing each set of opponents with a steely Mexican standoff and (apparently) unlimited ammo. In addition to Tarantino’s House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill, the finale also recalls the bloody, pyrotechnic excess of John Woo. He becomes the impossibly bullet-proof action hero cliches, surviving a headshot among several other traditionally life-ending injuries. We seem to be entering the realm of impossibility here; the violence is simply too extreme, too unbelievable.

Sun-woo’s final lines sum up the film perfectly: “This is too harsh.”

But then the final reversal…after Sun-woo apparently dies in the climactic shootout, last scene of the film flashes back to an opening scene of Sun-woo drinking espresso in the hotel bar. He gets up, looks at his image in the window and begins shadowboxing, enacting a fantasy version of himself as a deadly man of action. In reality, Sun-woo may have wholly crafted the events in the film in a daydream; the ending is open to interpretation. What is clear from the final image is that A Bittersweet Life is about a man fighting with and against himself in a struggle he’s fated to loose.

The film’s twist ending incorporates the film noir theme of the unreliable narrator in a really interesting, genre-bending way. A Bittersweet life is intensely melodramatic and sentimental, but also abrupt and savage in its depiction of violence. Like Kill Bill, it’s a revenge picture, but unlike Tarantino’s constructed alternate reality, Kim’s film acknowledges the impossibility of that kind of stylized violence existing in any kind of recognizable, contemporary reality. In reciting a Buddhist parable, Sun-woo admits his own flaws and the necessity of fantasy in achieving his ideal self:
One late autumn night, the disciple awoke crying. So the master asked the disciple, "Did you have a nightmare?" "No." "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." 

And isn’t that true of cinema itself? Kim Ji-woon has made a film that exploits the fantastic nature of fantasy itself, and gives us a comment on our own enjoyment in ultraviolent revenge films.
In a Q&A after the film, Kim described his ambition to film an “artistic description of destruction” via the figure of the lonely male protagonist in the big city (a la Taxi DriverLe Samourai, and many films noir). He certainly succeeded in bringing that wounded, lonely archetype to 21st c. life.

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