As Boss Kang (Kim Young-chul) tells the hero of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Dalkomhan Insaeng), no matter how well things are going, it only takes one mistake to make it all float away. Like any good film noir, the forces which conspire to ruin the quiet, orderly life of cooler than thou gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are those of desire as they come in conflict with codes of loyalty and decency. Sun-woo, like many a lonely hitman before him, finally wakes up to the emptiness of his life only to find no point of escape except the one he has often provided for others in precisely the same situation.
Smartly suited, Sun-woo is the trusted manager of the casino bar, Dolce Vita. Taken away from his elegant dessert in the upstairs restaurant, Sun-woo deals with a group of rowdy customers in true gangster fashion by launching in with a series of jump kicks and quickly thrown punches that reveal just why it is Sun-woo rules the roost. Sun-woo’s boss, Kang, has a special mission for his most trusted minion – keep an eye on his much younger girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), while he travels to Shanghai for three days. Kang thinks Hee-soo is having an affair. If she is, Sun-woo’s options are either to call Kang right away or take affirmative action on his own initiative.
Sun-woo investigates, but much to his surprise finds himself taken with Hee-soo. She is indeed having an affair, something which Sun-woo tries to ignore but finally has to be dealt with. A sudden pang of sympathy stops him from contacting Kang or pulling the trigger. Instead he decides to let the pair go on the condition they never see each other again. Thinking it’s all behind him, Sun-woo tries to go back to his regular job but he’s still dealing with the fallout from playing whistleblower on a high ranking gangster’s son.
Kim opens with an arty black and white sequence of tree branches swaying. In the story offered in voice over a disciple asks whether it is the trees or the wind which are moving, but the master replies that is is neither – it is the heart and mind which move. Like the branches, Sun-woo’s heart has begun to stir. Not love exactly, or lust, but movement. Sun-woo gazes at the way Hee-soo’s hair brushes her shoulder, at the way she walks and smiles at him. Listening to her cello rehearsal, his own emotional symphony begins, dangerously unbalancing his previously one-note existence with its identical suits and minimalist apartments.
Yet if Sun-woo’s downfall is Hee-soo and her alluring vitality, it was Kang’s first. An ageing gangster, Kang feels foolish taking up with a young girl but just can’t help himself. He loves the way Hee-soo couldn’t care less about what other people think, but that also worries him because she’ll never care what he thinks. Kang’s childishly romantic gift of a kitschy lamp with two owls huddling together on the base is the perfect symbol of his misplaced hopes – oddly innocent yet ultimately redundant. Notably, the lamp is one of many things shattered when Sun-woo takes Hee-soo’s lover to task.
Realising he has been betrayed, though not quite for the reasons he thinks, Sun-woo vows revenge. Everything has gone wrong, and he no longer believes in any kind of future which has him in it. Pausing only to send a more mature romantic gift to Hee-soo, an elegant lamp she’d admired on one of their shopping trips, he marches off towards certain death no longer caring for own life in his quest for vengeance and retribution. Repeating Kang’s questions back to him, asking for the real reason any of this happened, doesn’t get him very far but even if these two men have shared the same folly, they fail to understand each other even in death.
Returning to the master and his pupil, the closing coda recounts another story in which the pupil wakes up from a dream, weeping. The master asks him if he’s had a nightmare but the pupil says no, he’s had the sweetest of dreams. He’s crying because he’s awake and knows his dream can never come true. Sun-woo too has woken up, he knows there’s nothing for him now except to accept his fate. He has but been asleep, dreaming a sweet dream, and now he must wake and taste life’s bitterness just as he prepares to leave it.
Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.
Original trailer (English subtitles)