Korean director Kim Ji-woon is one bad mutha ... [**Shut yo mouth!**] Only talkin' 'bout Kim! The guy defined family-based black comedy with The Quiet Family (1998). Then he went all freaky deaky K-horror on your ass in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). And here, in 2005's A Bittersweet Life, he proves he can make operatic gangster pictures with the best of 'em.
Lee Byeong-heon (JSA, Three ... Extremes) stars as Sun-woo, a suave mob enforcer who finds himself on the shit list not only of a rival gang, but that of his own boss. (The latter tends to happen when the boss asks you to look after his hot young girlfriend, even when you don't make a move.) Before long our boy finds himself being beaten, stabbed, shot, even buried alive. This doesn't sit well with him, his thoughts turning to revenge. To do the job right, he's going to need more than the standard array of melee weapons commonly used by Korean gangsters -- he'll need firepower and lots of it. Sun-woo's quest for guns takes him on a bizarre odyssey, the film's only comedic set piece, featuring one of the goofiest looking guys in Korean cinema, Oh Dai-soo (Oldboy, A Bloody Aria).
A Bittersweet Life hits all the right notes. Slick urban settings mask what is essentially a cruel tale of bushido similar to Japanese films like The Secret of the Urn or, indeed, Cruel Tales of Bushido: A trustworthy retainer is subjected to the whims of a capricious lord and made to suffer for being nothing less than a paragon of loyalty. Blend this with Korean cinema's uniquely kinetic flair for screen violence and you've got one hell of an exciting picture. Lee Byeong-heon is on fire, one minute pouncing like a jungle cat, the next blasting away like some Peckinpah anti-hero.
I picked up A Bittersweet Life on a region-2 Tartan Asia Extreme disk back when Tartan was still a UK entity. It can still be had as a Japanese import, but let's hope the new US-based Tartan Palisades label decides to release it here. If you like Asian gangster films, you'll definitely want this on in the collection.
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