Best South Korean Films: Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life
Sometimes the punishment doesn’t always match the crime. In Korean cinema, that line often disappears without really much of an acknowledgement; in the minds of those committing violence, the characters often feel justified in the pain they dole out. Kim Jee-woon’s films in particular tow that line, and often confront the leap from revenge to torture — such is the case in I Saw the Devil and in Kim’s 2005 film, A Bittersweet Life. With the latter, the motivations behind the central revenge plot aren’t explored thoroughly. Instead, Kim provides two key decisions that lead to a cycle of violence dependent on irrational and illogical behavior. They also help set A Bittersweet Life apart from many of the other genre films to come out of South Korea predicated on vengeance as the main storytelling device.
When Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is tasked with looking after his boss’ wife (Shin Min-ah), he has no idea what will happen when he decides to try and make a decision on his own. Mr. Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol) wants Sun-woo to keep an eye on Hee-soo to make sure she isn’t having an affair with another man. A generally lonely man who is nevertheless dedicated to his work, Sun-woo accompanies Hee-soo to a cello recital, where something wells up inside of him. That moment serves as the only real justification for why Sun-woo makes the decision that ultimately ruins his life.
When he discovers that Hee-soo is indeed having an affair, Sun-woo decides to take it upon himself to beat the man up and tell the pair to never see each other ever again, to completely forget that they ever met. This decision — completely out-of-character for Sun-woo — leads to his downfall, as Kang has his henchmen mercilessly beat Sun-woo and eventually bury him alive. Given a second chance to explain why he disobeyed, Sun-woo offers nothing, and begins a plot of revenge for the heinous punishment inflicted on him. It’s not a punishment that matched the crime, which seems to be the sole motivation for Sun-woo to go on the killing spree against Kang. Even Kang himself ponders the severity of his actions, but ultimately justifies it as a necessary evil in order to prevent future disobedience from his other followers.
“One fine spring day a disciple looked at some branches blowing in the wind. He asked his master, “Master, are the branches moving or is it the wind?” Not even glancing to where his pupil was pointing the master smiled and said, “That which moves is neither the branches nor the wind. It’s your heart and mind.””
The above opening koan sets the stage for the two major decisions made in A Bittersweet Life: Sun-woo’s handling of the affair, and Kang’s choice of punishment. The movie seemingly derives its name from Sun-woo’s sudden motivation to keep on living in a world that he had no real attachment to besides obligation to the one man who tossed him aside — and the futility of his situation when death appears the only outcome. The film’s climactic shootout has Sun-woo emptying clip after clip into each nameless gangster until he eventually collapses and rests while bleeding out. Once he crumples, the world around him ceases to exist. A man comes up to him and watches as Sun-woo calls Hee-soo, only to reflect upon the cello recital before being executed.
The recital that Sun-woo reflects on is often cited as the moment he falls in love with Hee-soo, though that reading doesn’t really connect with much of the rest of the film. It’d be easier to argue what the opening koan seems to suggest, which is merely a sudden overwhelming emotion that is indescribable, and yet guides his movements from that point onward — something that stirs in both Sun-woo’s heart and mind. It could be love, but it could also just be his first realization of the loneliness in his life. No matter what it is, it’s a feeling that Sun-woo can never seem to define or articulate to Kang.
Of course, this is an infuriating thing to listen to when all signs point to blatant disobedience. With no real understanding of why Sun-woo did what he did, Kang’s reaction is still far too severe, and even he ponders this. It’s Kang’s own reaction to a previous punishment that he doled out that seemed to be too tame, cutting off a previous henchman’s fingers only to have Sun-woo still defy his orders after the fact. In that context, Kang is just trying to keep his organization in line. But much like how Sun-woo does not tell his boss why he defied him, Kang does not reveal to Sun-woo why he punished him so greatly. The two stand bullheaded. The only difference is that Kang still believes himself invincible, while Sun-woo believes himself doomed.
A Bittersweet Life plays out like a tragedy. The criminal who knows nothing else finds himself suddenly overtaken by the beauty of life itself, only to have it doom him. Holding onto a fleeting moment of passion, Sun-woo firmly plants himself in his own grave. While his seemingly irrational action thrusts him in the throes of death, Kang’s irrational response gives Sun-woo the motivation to keep on living just long enough to bring some sort of justice to the world. It’s why Kim Jee-woon’s film is more beautiful than it is savage, like some of his other works — he doesn’t hinge revenge on the sake of vengeance. He doesn’t flinch from painting every scene in blood when he can, but it’s all in the name of providing the same unjust punishment in return.