A Bittersweet Life (2005)

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Certification: 18

Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Kim Yeong-cheol, Shin Min-a, Kim Roi-ha, Hwang Jung-min, Lee Ki-young, Oh Dal-su, Kim Hae-gon

"You can do a hundred things right, but one mistake will destroy everything." Spoken by a prominent crime boss during the film, this line manages to effectively get to the heart of Kim Jee-woon's A Bittersweet Life. Early on in the feature, gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is introduced doing one of many things right as he takes care of business, using his method of an impressive fight sequence to deal with customers refusing to leave.

Having working his way up the ranks in his organization, Sun-woo has earned the trust of his cold-hearted crime boss, Mr. Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol). For his latest mission, Sun-woo has been tasked with spying on his boss' mistress to see whether she is having an affair. As he becomes enchanted with the mistress, Sun-woo discovers that Mr. Kang's suspicions are true, but instead chooses to spare the mistress and her lover. Through this decision, the hitman puts his life on the line while also starting an irreversible gang war.

Within a career of well-regarded features, this was one of the most renowned works from filmmaker Kim Jee-woon. The writer/director takes a familiar sounding premise involving a gangster retaliating against his boss, and brings it alive in ways equally stylish and pulse-pounding. From the thrilling use of a flickering light, to a ticking time-bomb of a gun-buying sequence dripping with tension, and especially the fantastic fights, this is an eye-catching work. From the decisions made to the injuries sustained, there is a sense that everything matters in this film as the smallest thing could leave a substantial impact upon the characters.

Central to this film is Sun-woo, whose life is brutality at the whim of the boss that he supposedly owes his life to. As the man whose entire world is violence, Lee Byung-hun gives a phenomenally expressive performance that simultaneously captures the loneliness within his eyes and the building rage upon his face. The character longs to experience genuine beauty and happiness, and when it does arrive, the experience is tragically a fleeting one. As Sun-woo's actions leave him at the epicenter of the unfolding barbarity, he realizes how little his loyalty is truly worth to the man that he gave everything for.

Across the 120-minute runtime, Jee-woon fantastically captures the pointlessness of brutality. Within a world where violence is the answer, an inescapable cycle of violence is tragically kickstarted because of a moment of compassion. At the forefront of this are two men who cannot verbalize their inner issues, instead choosing to see this situation through to the end long after the reasons for it all stopped mattering. In capturing the lead character's existence, A Bittersweet Life is truly an appropriate title for this masterful crime work.

A Bittersweet Life is now available on digital platforms