I haven't seen many films from writer-director Kim Jee-woon, but I've been very impressed by those I have seen. I Saw The Devil (reviewed here, complete with incorrect naming structure) is fantastic, A Tale Of Two Sisters is a modern horror masterpiece (and the film that put him on my radar, making me keen to see this one when I knew his name was attached to it), and even The Last Stand (reviewed here, where I make the same naming error) is a good bit of fun. So you could say that I'm a fan, and I'll tell you right now that A Bittersweet Life is up there with his best work.
Lee Byung-hun plays Kim, a right hand man to a criminal big cheese named Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol). When he is heading to Shanghai on business, Kang asks Kim to keep an eye on a young woman (Hee-soo, played by Shin Min-ah) he has been seeing. But the young woman may also be seeing someone else. This complicated situation is unfolding at the same time as tensions are rising with another criminal gang, headed up by Baek Dae-sik (played by Hwang Jung-min), meaning things are about to get worse and worse for Kim, a man who has spent a long time trying to do the best job possible for an employer who now looks set to discard him.
There are so many things to praise about A Bittersweet Life that I may as well just apologise now for not mentioning them all. There's only one thing I dislike about it, a comedy sequence that feels jarring until the rest of the film starts to mix the humour more effectively in with some escalating violence, but the rest comes damn close to perfection for every minute of the runtime.
Let's start with the cast, and let's start discussing the cast by discussing the star. Byung-hun is at his very best in the lead role, putting in a performance that is alternately sweet and courteous and then absolutely vicious when necessary. His introduction sets the tone for the whole film, dealing with a big problem by offering the chance of a peaceful resolution before having to resort to swift and decisive violence. Yeong-chol, Min-ah, and Jung-min all do well in their roles, and there are a number of entertaining supporting turns, but this is Byung-hun's movie through and through. He holds the screen in a way that seems effortless, confirming his star status to anyone who hadn't encountered him on film before.
The script, also by Jee-woon, is rich in detail without underlining every sentence. This is a film in which every gesture and word counts, especially when they're being delivered by a main character who doesn't do anything without giving it serious thought beforehand, and the big picture that builds from start to finish makes the whole experience more and more immersive, all the way to a grand finale that ends things very much in line with the title of the film.
Gorgeous cinematography comes courtesy of Kim Ji-yong, and the film is bookended by some great camerawork that replicates a certain journey throughout the main location that feels more like home to Kim than the actual residence where he gets to lay his head down, the music works nicely in an unobtrusive way, and everything just feels perfectly in place, from the clothing to the production design work.
I know that I have one or two reasons for not giving this the highest rating possible, but those reasons are harder to recollect as I spend more time remembering all that is great about it. So be aware that I could happily bump this up after future repeat viewings.
There's a disc available here.
The same disc can be bought here.