KOREAN MOVIE REVIEW: A Bittersweet Life

This movie (2005)  first drew my attention many years ago when I was flicking through channels on the TV and came across it randomly. As I watched, a scene unfolded that really interested me, really pulled me in and sucked me down into its world:

A dark room, a restaurant or a club. Sitting at a table are a few sleazy looking men lounging next to some women. A man walks past and they call him over.  They invite him to sit and he does, but he shuts down everything they try to say, even telling the women at the table to leave which completely pisses the other men off.

 He looks at the group with an almost exhausted intensity, as if he is done with everything and no longer cares what happens. His attitude riles up one of the men at the table, who drawls threateningly at the newcomer,  ‘Kim Sunwoo, do you think the world is all yours? Don’t do anything you’ll regret.’

The man does not reply and just gets back to his feet and then walks away.

And I could not stop watching…..


This movie is definitely violent and not really at all romantic in a love story way.

It is the story of a man drowning in a dark world of his own making, trying desperately to redeem something within himself before it is too late.

Which I guess, is a little bit romantic, in a very dark way.

I read a review of this movie which said it was all surface, flashy violence and noir-ish style. The reviewer did say they loved it but that it was purely shallow, a movie for people who enjoy watching incredibly violent amazingly choreographed fight scenes and not much more.

This is something I cannot disagree with more.

This movie has so much depth, amazingly reflected in Lee Byung-hun’s portrayal of a character that is not a good man and knows it, and is eventually driven to redeem himself by that knowledge.

A scene that always comes to mind when I want to describe the undercurrent in this movie, the act of redemption, takes place towards the very beginning and then the end of the film when we see Sunwoo primping in front of a reflective window, looking at his reflection and putting on a show.  This tells me that for him the world is surface, he works hard and he reaps the rewards, he does questionable things without a second thought when his boss asks and so he gains what he thinks is respect from his boss and his co-workers.

After the bloody finale, where Sunwoo loses everything,  we hear the voice over: 

One late autumn night, the disciple awoke crying. So the master asked the disciple, “Did you have a nightmare?”

“No.”

“Did you have a sad dream?”

“No,” said the disciple. “I had a sweet dream.”

“Then why are you crying so sadly?”

The disciple wiped his tears away and quietly answered, “Because the dream I had can’t come true.”

And then before the credits roll, once again we are shown Sunwoo as he was, primping in front of the window and trying to look tough as he admires his own reflection.

After seeing the man stripped bare and raw towards the end of this movie it is a real shock to see him reverted back to his original self, and it really conveys, to me at least, just how far his journey took him. It highlights again what it is he has spent his life thinking was important: image and the respect he felt that image was due.

Even though the ending of this film is definitely tragic, I still think this movie is more about what Sunwoo has gained rather than what he has lost.

Its true he loses everything (including his life), but what he has gained is an understanding of himself, and the man that he wanted to be.

And for him that is something worth dying for. A bittersweet life indeed.

Thank you for reading, please feel free to leave a comment below!

Lee Evie

LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea. Discover Lee Evie’s historical fiction novels by clicking on the images below!


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