A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon, 2005)

bitterweet life posterAs 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)

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

memories_of_murderThe Korea of the mid-1980s was a society in flux though you might not know it looking at the sleepy small town about to be rocked by the country’s very first publicised spate of serial killings. Between 1986 and 1991, at least ten women ranging in age from schoolgirls to grandmothers were murdered while the killer seemingly got away with his crimes, either dying, fleeing or perhaps getting arrested on other charges explaining the abrupt end to his crime spree. Bong Joon-ho’s fictionalised take on the case, Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Salinui Chueok), is not so much interested in the killer’s identity, but wants to ask a few hard questions about why the crimes took place and why they were never solved.

In October of 1986, Inspector Park (Song Kang-ho) rides a junk cart out to a paddy field where a farmer has found the decomposing body of a woman blocking a drainage ditch at the edge of his land. Park quickly confirms that it is, in fact, the body of a murdered woman and tries to look unphased while a strange little boy distracted from his bug catching neatly echoes everything he says, playing policeman while the other children run roughshod over the crime scene trailing their butterfly nets behind them.

Needless to say Park and his bruiser partner, Cho (Kim Roe-ha), are ill equipped to handle a case of this magnitude, especially when it becomes clear that the murder is not an isolated episode. They are later joined by a more experienced officer from Seoul, Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who is not used to country ways and finds it hard to adjust to their distinctly old fashioned and unscientific approach to law enforcement. Park, resentful at being saddled with a babysitter from the city and made to feel as if his small town skills aren’t good enough is determined to prove that he knows his stuff even as he begins to realise that perhaps policing really isn’t for him.

Park is the kind of policeman every small town has. Placing great faith in his detective’s instinct, Park is sure that he “just knows” who is naughty and who is nice. He asks suspects to look directly into his eyes so that he can assess whether they’re telling him the truth but it’s more of a party trick than anything else, looking into Park’s earnest gaze most suspects will crack. Early on Park’s boss gives him a test – two boys have been brought in and are patiently filling out forms. One caught the other in the middle of raping his sister, stopped him, and dragged him to the police station. Which one is the brother and which the rapist? Park feels sure he knows, and one could certainly make an educated guess based on the number and positioning of bruises on the suspects’ faces, but attempting to identify criminality based solely on perceived shiftiness or not liking the look of someone is crossing the line from professional instinct to ignorant prejudice.

The truth is that Park knows he’s no great shakes as a law enforcer. He was never meant to be – small town cops don’t generally do a lot of crime solving, they maintain order through the visible presence of authority. Thus he takes against city boy Seo because he instantly feels threatened by his urban sophistication and big city ways. Seo is perhaps not the best cop Seoul had to offer, but he is trained investigative techniques entirely alien to Park and Cho. The extent to which they’re out of their depth is obvious when they seem to know they’re supposed to secure the crime scene, but can’t, allowing valuable evidence to be carelessly destroyed.

Park’s investigative techniques involve making scrapbooks of shady local guys and browbeating suspects, eventually trying to railroad a young man with learning difficulties into confessing to the crime through a process of physical violence and mental attrition. Put out by Seo’s more concrete leads, Park’s only other contribution is to suggest they start looking for guys with no pubic hair which sees him waste more time hanging out in public baths and doing a lot of inappropriate staring. Wasting time is Park’s biggest crime though, amusingly enough, he and Seo end up in exactly the same place when Park consults a Shaman and Seo pursues a more rational line of enquiry lending credence to the idea that neither of them is really much better than the other.

What gets lost is that a woman, and then several more women, are dead and there is a man out there preying on wives, sisters, and mothers yet nothing much is being to protect them save reminding them to take care of themselves. Park wants the kudos of catching a killer but he barely thinks about the consequences of arresting the wrong man, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that the real killer would still be out there posing a threat to every woman in the town. Despite the fact that this is a small place where the victims are known to most people, there is little in the way of public grief or even sadness. The only sign of public feeling is in the small protest held outside the police station when a member of a local church is arrested.

The protest may be the key. In this strained era, Korea was reaching the end of its period under the control of a military dictatorship with the Olympics still a few years away and democracy the bright dream of brave radicals. Park and co. are the “friendly” face of the ruling regime, one of their secondary roles is doing the government’s dirty work. Hence when they really need extra manpower to chase a suspect they are denied it because everyone in the local area has been sent to suppress a protest in a nearby town. This is a scant few years after the Gwanju massacre, “suppression” means more than just standing around with riot shields designed to intimidate. Yes, there’s a crazed killer on the loose, but he is only a symptom and manifestation of a social order which has long since abandoned the idea of protecting its citizens in order to more effectively oppress them.

A woman can walk down a street in broad daylight and be terrified by a man trying to ask for directions because she has been taught to be afraid and knows the threat is real. A television news report on the trial of a policeman accused of violence and sexual assault reminds us why she can’t trust Park. Her government does not care about her. It could make more of an effort to solve these crimes, but it won’t, because the appearance of order is always preferential to its reality. The memories of murder run deep, they speak of all the stifled impulses of a life under a dictatorial regime. No one does anything because there is nothing to be done.

The identity of the killer is, in this sense, irrelevant – it is the society which is ultimately responsible for creating him and then for failing to put an end to his crimes. Park and Seo, eventually working together through a kind of cross pollination, think they’ve found their man but can’t prove it because Korea doesn’t have DNA testing facilities and they need to wait for results from an American lab. The evidence is circumstantial yet convincing, and one can’t be sure. The face of evil is “plain” and “ordinary”, much like your own. If you want to find the answer, start looking closer to home.


Original trailer (English subtitles)