Lanning's Review of A Bittersweet Life (Dalkomhan insaeng)
(Dalkomhan insaeng ) We can't turn back time, can we. I am quickly becoming a Korean film addict. I have a strong feeling that I am about to embark on a long neglected quest for a deeper understanding of my paternal heritage. If I could give this movie more than five stars, there would be no hesitation on my part to do so. This film is one for the cinematic ages. There is evidenced here an historical linked legacy of tribute to films that have come before. Yojimbo stands as the foundation for this chain. Although there are surely other films which could be mentioned, for me a clear line of homage to Yojimbo runs from Leone's Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistfull of Dollars) , to, as my flixster buddy Sabina points out, Melville's Le Samourai, to Scorcese's Taxi Driver, to this masterpiece by Kim Ji-woon. Each pays tribute to the ones before, yet each is its own unique masterpiece. If you have not experienced this Korean actor, Lee Byung-hun (Sun-woo), you must do yourself the entertaining favor of seeing him in action. And when I say action, I mean full-bore head-cracking action. His martial arts style is fluid and sharply crisp. His acting is very good as well, especially in that he is able, through facial expression alone, to communicate great emotion. And those eyes! Although I must say that I've noticed a degree of ability for doing this in not a few of my father's family. Maybe it's a Korean thing : ) As Sabina points out, his close resemblance to Alain Delon in Le Samourai is uncanny. The acting is solid throughout, but Kim Roe-ha as the somewhat socially clueless Mun-suk is particularly fine. There is a stronger bond between Lee and Kim, and their combined acting talents shine in their final meeting, a scene straight out of Taxi Driver, where whatever that affection is that they do feel for each other comes across most poignantly. It is the only killing, I believe, that gives Lee pause, perhaps tugs at his heart and/or conscience, in his final march to the end. And speaking of killing. No doubt about it, this movie has been accurately billed as a Korean revenge film. It is indeed bloody, flixster friends, but it is not the kind of repulsive violence you might find in, say, Natural Born Killers. The violence here is purposefully and pretty darn artfully choreographed and filmed. I always appreciate a little humor with my gore, so I give huge points to the gun instruction scene. Ever experience road rage? Go home and watch this. There is a road rage vengeance scene that will make you feel so much better :)A key, for me, in determining the difference between violence that has purpose and violence which is presented for the sake of violence is motivation. While it is true that Lee is a no nonsense ass-kicker from the start, he is not a natural born killer. Live burial scenes in literature, where the victim does somehow escape death, can symbolize a kind of rebirth. At the moment Lee emerges from his grave, he is indeed reborn. It is then that he becomes the stone-cold killer bent on revenge. It would be unfair, however, to say that A Bittersweet Life is only a revenge movie. It is also a love story, and these two motifs are inextricably entwined. Of course, it is not a happy love story, since Lee's love is unrequited, but it is a moving love story nonetheless. Sorry to do this, but the final four sequences of the film, Lee near death, the flashback to his watching the woman he loves play her cello, Lee's death, and the amazingly moving, seemingly non sequitur cut to a still living Lee, somewhere in the near past, shadow boxing with his reflection in a window, all help reinforce the bittersweet nature of his life. I am not fluent in Korean and cannot vouch for the English translation of the title. I, however, love the title because it emphasizes the fact that this is not a tragic end. A man who, finally, fights with himself, and even seems to enjoy that struggle against his own person, is a man for whom life cannot ever end in tragedy. The killing and the longing for love commingle in Lee's last conscious moments, and make "bittersweet " a very apt word to describe his end. To quote one of my friend's favorite lines: I cry not because I had a bad dream, but because the dream was so good, I know it has no chance of coming true. True love, as I've said before, can literally kill you.