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NYAFF 2006: “A Bittersweet Life.”

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"That which moves is neither branch nor wind, it is your heart and mind."
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)

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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