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)

Failan (파이란, Song Hae-sung, 2001)

FailanSometimes God’s comic timing is impeccable. You might hear it said that love transcends death, becomes an eternal force all of its own, but the “love story”, if you can call it that, of the two characters at the centre of Song Hae-sung’s Failan (파이란, Pairan), who, by the way, never actually meet, occurs entirely in the wrong order. It’s one thing to fall in love in a whirlwind only to have that love cruelly snatched away by death what feels like only moments later, but to fall in love with a woman already dead? Fate can be a cruel master.

The titular Failan (Cecilia Cheung) is a migrant from mainland China who’s travelled to Korea in search of her last remaining relatives following the death of her family. Unfortunately, they moved abroad some time ago and no one knows how to contact them. Stuck in Korea, Failan is running out of options but a “kindly” woman suggests a phoney visa marriage so she can legally stay in the country and earn her keep at the same time.

So, she ends up married to the feckless petty gangster-cum-video-store-proprietor Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik). We meet him around a year later and it’s his story we follow for the first half of the film as he gets out of jail after being arrested for selling adult videos to horny teenagers. Kang-jae quickly gets into an argument with his gangster boss, Young-sik (Son Byung-ho), but as they’re also old friends they patch things up over a drink only for the evening to go way south when Young-sik spots a rival gang member and ends up beating him to a bloody pulp whilst in a trance-like rage.

Young-sik is young and ambitious so when the crime is discovered he pleads with Kang-jae to take the rap for him, promising that he’ll buy him that fishing boat he’s always wanted so he can go back to his home town when he gets out. Kang-jae goes home to think it over and gets a knock on the door, two policemen are standing outside only they haven’t come to arrest him – the wife he’d forgotten all about has died. Kang-jae has hit a fork in the road both literal and metaphorical and takes a road trip with his best friend to finally meet his bride in a cold and lonely place.

Failan is almost a plot device in the film that bears her name, but her story is a sad and a hard one. Orphaned and alone she finds scant kindness in her adopted country but the woman who runs the laundry where she ends up working does at least develop an almost maternal feeling for her. Failan feels great gratitude to Kang-jae for agreeing to marry her so she could stay in Korea and is convinced he must be a very good, very kind person. She thinks this largely because she never meets him.

Kang-jae is rubbish at being a gangster. Young-Sik may have a point when he says he doesn’t have the heart for it. Early on, some of the youngsters try and rope him into an extortion scheme where they’re trying to get an old granny to pay back some of her loan. Apparently the granny had once been kind to Kang-jae when he was young and hungry so he doesn’t really put a lot of effort into being menacing towards her which makes him lose face with the young toughs who think of him as a joke anyway. Reading Failan’s letter, it’s the first time that anyone has ever said anything nice about him. The first woman who ever thought he was worth anything at all and she’s already lost to him before he even knew her.

Kang-jae is not a good man, he’s an underling just muddling through without thinking. He leaps from one thing to another always thrashing around landing where falls. He has a vague ambition to get the money together to buy a fishing boat and go home, but he’s not seriously pursing it. Even the group of gangsters he’s involved with are so laughably low rent that they can’t hold on to their completely worthless territory and have to put pressure on old ladies just to get by. After reading Failan’s letter and hearing that someone believed he was better than this, Kang-jae finally wakes up and starts thinking about his life with the ultimate realisation that he doesn’t have to live like this. Unfortunately, he might have just picked the wrong day to start living the rest of his life.

In many ways Failan is a typical melodrama filled with the pain of unrealised love and Fate’s ironic sense of timing. Based on a novel by the modern Japanese master of the tearjerker Jiro Asada (Poppoya), Failan seems engineered to rend hearts with its tale of true love frustrated by time and circumstance where every ounce of hope and goodness is well and truly trodden into the ground by the time the credits roll. Nevertheless, Song keeps things on the right side of schmaltzy, never racking up the misery and heartbreak beyond the threshold of plausibility. Like all the best melodramas, Failan’s sentimentality is sincere and, ultimately, moving. Another sad story of salvation arriving too late, Failan’s tale of tragic, unrealised love is an all too familiar one but effectively told it can’t fail to tear the heart.


You can currently stream Failan via Amazon Video in the US courtesy of Asian Crush, but the Korean R3 DVD and Region A blu-ray both contain English subtitles!

Unsubbed trailer: