Watching A Bittersweet Life for the first time brings back fond memories of seeing John Woo's The Killer back in the early 90's. Stylistically they're miles apart, but like that definitive Chow Yun Fat movie Kim Jee-woon's ice cold revenge drama never lets up and has instant classic written all over it.
Lee Byung-hun plays Kim Sun-woo, an enforcer for local criminal bigshot Kang. By the time we meet him he's already climbed to a notable position of trust and despite the squabblings of those below him his well ordered life seems untouchable. The future looks bright. On the rare occasion he has to dip down to the underclass he dispenses punishment in such a matter of fact way that you can't imagine anyone getting the better of him. He's set up for a hell of a fall.
That tumble comes of course in the form of a woman - Kang's mistress no less who is left under his supervision. Kim warms to the girl, a cellist, and in the few days they spend together everything goes smoothly despite her insistence that she doesn't need a minder. Things go to hell when Kim discovers her infidelity and subsequently breaks his own rules and Kang's wishes in the way that he deals with his discovery. The mobster returns and before Kim knows what is happening he finds himself on the wrong side of the people who have just been dreaming of him making such a slip. Torture and revenge follow as both employer and employee attempt to find the solution to unanswerable questions. Just exactly why all this unfolds in the way that it does is the central theme.
Gunfights, fisticuffs, Russian gunrunners and a memorable standoff in an ice rink follow, before the inevitable action fest finale that actually has much more in common with Sam Peckinpah than anything to come out of Korea in recent years. There's no point in the Americans even trying to remake this one unless they can revive Steve McQueen first.
A Bittersweet Life is generating comparisons to Park Chan-wook's 'vengeance' trilogy (Lady Vengeance is released next month) and while this is understandable Kim Jee-woon seems to be aiming for something very different. There's no quirky plotting here and smiles are thin lipped throughout. Old Boy in comparison is a riot, a tricked out BMX to this cold chrome racer and yet both share intensely memorable leads whose quests for truth have the ring of Greek tragedy about them. This is heroic bloodshed as it used to be done and you'd be crazy not to give it a go.