So, spoilers (barely): "A Bittersweet Life" has an odd coda that’s either a flashback to a happier time or an implication that the slickly brutal, nihilistic gangster story that preceded it is all the fantasy of the (presumably normal, working stiff) main character.
Of course, director Kim Jee-woon (whose previous film was the disquieting gothic horror flick "A Tale of Two Sisters") has made it known that the latter reading was not his intention — still, we prefer it. It explains the unlikely way that, in the course of his bloody adventures, Sun-woo (Lee Byung-Hun, of "J.S.A.") continually shrugs off serious injuries, along with the seemingly careless whims of the plot. Also, given the breathless reception this film has gotten in certain circles, it’s clearly already a fanboy fantasy — why not give it the poignancy of being a self-acknowledged one?
Shot mostly at night in a Seoul that’s glimpsed only in passing on highways and through windows, the film has unquestionable style to burn. Sun-woo, an enforcer at a stylishly lit mob-run hotel, makes his entrance by finishing up a rich dessert and then heading downstairs to handily thrash some local gangsters causing trouble downstairs, all without ruffling his immaculate black suit. Competent and emotionless (if not so politic), he’s clearly an up-and-comer — until his boss, Kang, asks Sun-woo to look in on his young mistress while he’s away on business. Kang has a feeling she’s cheating on him, and he asks Sun-woo to confirm this, and, if it’s true, to kill her.
The girl, Hee-soo, is fooling around with someone, but before Sun-woo discovers this he’s already enchanted by her beauty and her cello-playing. He spares her life on impulse, is immediately found out (we’re never shown how), beaten, tortured and buried alive. He escapes.
The rest, as they say, is violence.
After set-pieces involving fire and a long fight in a narrow hallway reminiscent of the one in "Oldboy," Sun-woo gets hold of a gun and ups the body count considerably in pursuit of his former boss, who in turn refuses to back down. As the action escalates, the initial motivations grow muddied — why would either take things so far? Hee-soo nearly disappears from the film halfway through, and even when she’s in it, she’s portrayed in pieces: a close-up of an ear, a lock of hair, eyes, less a person than a collection of striking parts, and hardly a justification for what occurs. If she’s the force that drags Sun-woo out of the hollow life he was leading, why is his next impulse to go out and kill so many people? Kim frames the film with two Buddhist parables, but whatever thematic heft about life being unexpected suffering and beauty he attempts to imbue the film with is lost in the gorgeously shot, skillfully directed, glossily empty action.
Screens June 16 the Anthology and June 27 at the ImaginAsian.
+ "A Bittersweet Life" (NYAFF)