More noise than signal

A Bittersweet Life

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

If there’s one branch of cinema that’s gone to hell in a handbasket quicker than the rest, it’s action films. It’s as if the fallout of the Arnie / Stallone arms race left studio execs thinking, “right, that’s enough guns, bring me the wire-fu and a stack of comic books.” Attempts to graft a social conscious onto the mayhem proved disastrous, and the genre was quitely sidelined. The trailer for this Korean outing proved interesting, featuring as it did people getting shot in a variety of stylish ways. Just the ticket.

Or, alternatively, not. A Bittersweet Life, or Dalkomhan insaeng isn’t a bad film by any stretch, but it’s not quite the revelation we were hoping for. Sun-Woo (Byung-hun Lee), restaurant manager cum enforcer for President Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim) finds himself in a world of hurt after being assigned to ‘watch over’ da Prez’s pretty young girlfriend, Hee-Soo (Shin Mina). Finding out she’s been cheating on his boss, his growing fondness for the lass makes him reluctant to carry out his command of terminating her. And it’s not as if he’s not got enough problems as it is, what with President Baek’s (Jeong-min Hwang) gang of thugs who are oddly familiar with Kang’s third-in-command trying to muscle in on his business.

By mechanisms I struggle to recall and are largely superfluous at any rate, Sun-Woo finds himself disowned and betrayed by his friends, and squarely in the firing line of his enemies. The only solution, as ever, is to Kill Them All And Let God Sort Them Out. Yay!

Or, alternatively, not. The merest scraping of the plot that this film has is so flyaway that in the intervening week between watching it and writing this it has flown away. I’m left with vague impressions of intermittently stylish and generally competent firefights, a few slick gun handling tricks and a completely awesome black market gun dealer that dresses like a 1970’s pimp. It also has a horrendous get-out clause of an ending that, were I to have any way cared about or engaged with the film in any way would have had me tearing my hair out in frustration. I suppose it’s a blessing that I really couldn’t give a monkey’s about it, in that case.

For all defender’s claims of it being an ‘action noire’, it ain’t pretty enough and ain’t stylish enough to pull it above the mish-mash of gangster stereotypes and cookie-cutter scenarios. I neither particularly want nor need continual twists and turns from an action film, I want fun and there’s simply not enough of it in A Bittersweet Life to hold your attention over its two hours. We’re back to the Diet John Woo stuff again, and with the benefit of hindsight I’d really rather have watched Hard Boiled or The Killer again than sit through this.

Or, alternatively, not. It’s perhaps unfair to expect it to outshine the gold standards of the genre. As it stands Ji-woon Kim, director of the similarly sort-of-stylish, sort-of-dull A Tale of Two Sisters, has produced a few pretty good fight sequences and a lot of filler for this outing, and while the overall effect isn’t as exhilarating as the trailer promised it’s not an awful film. In terms of action flicks, it’s even one of the better ones of the last few months (Hello, Running Scared!). What it isn’t, is anything above mediocre and certainly not one of the better efforts of the last few years.

In the end, A Bittersweet Life is really rather unremarkable. I’d better stop remarking on it then.