Underworld enforcer Sun-woo (Lee) has his boss' absolute trust in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Amid the delicate assignment of spying on the senior gangster's girlfriend Hee-soo (Shin), he makes a split-second decision that will bring their world crashing down.
Underworld enforcer-in-ascendance Sun-woo (Byung-hun) has his boss' trust in exchange for unquestioning loyalty and professionalism. Amid the delicate assignment of spying on the senior gangster's girlfriend Hee-soo (Min-a), he makes a split-second decision that will bring their world crashing down.
You could easily be forgiven for thinking A Bittersweet Life is a Park Chan-wook film - more specifically, the follow-up to Old Boy. Kim Ji-woon's latest is similar in style and in tone, and has the same vein of tar-black humour pumping through its heart. This is not a criticism – au contraire, it's a happy coincidence to have two similarly brilliant films come out of the same place in close succession. Echoes of Takeshi Kitano and Tarantino (right down to introducing the leading lady feet-first) are also apparent, yet Ji-woon can pride himself on not letting these influences drown out his own contribution – it's more often a case of drawing from the same hard-boiled roots of these contemporaries than owing them directly. Then there's the violence - suffice to say that there's quite a lot of it.
The only problems are pacing (a bit too much time is taken setting up the pieces in the first act), and Min-a's role. It may be interpreted as spirited in Bittersweet Life's homeland, but it borders on precocious here, and sometimes you wonder what everyone sees in her. Byung-hun however, puts in a star-making performance as the brutal chief whip-turned-fugitive, never overplaying what could easily become hammy and clichéd, and easily holds this Korean noir together.
Despite stylistic déjà vu, this is hugely enjoyable, and beautifully brutal.