I love A Bittersweet Life. I never thought I would love a violent movie, but this one gripped me from beginning to end. I want to watch it again just to savor Lee Byung-hun. His portrayal of Sun-woo blew my mind. He was just magnificent. If it wasn’t 2.00 am. when I finished, I would have rerun it immediately.
These are my thoughts about certain aspects of the movie. I won’t try to be too analytical because I think this movie is not easily analyzed. It’s beautiful and magical in its own way and some questions may never be answered.
Sun-woo and Hee-soo
I see her as the Indian summer in his life. Like a breeze gently rustling the leaves of a tree on a muggy day, she stirred in him something that is not easy to pinpoint. I wouldn’t call it love, but I would say it was an awareness — the keen realization of “otherness.” Perhaps she reminded him of someone in his past: a lost love, a sibling, a late mother… We will never know.
Before Hee-soo (Shin Mina) came into his life, the Sun-woo we see in the early part of the movie is arrogant on the outside but empty and nervous inside. He walks with a swagger, but look at his face and you see the sallow complexion, the vacant eyes. As he said to his boss in the last part of the movie, what was he but just a “dog” doing his master’s bidding? See the long whip marks on his back. Who put them there? Had he been imprisoned before? Captured before? Humiliated like a dog before?
Why did he keep switching the lights on and off before sleeping? It could be the restlessness in his spirit, the absence of peace that is the price you pay for having enemies. It could be the hidden fear that sleeping made him vulnerable. You can’t protect yourself when you are asleep. And indeed it was when he was sleeping that Baek’s men came into his apartment and thus began the living hell that was the middle part of the movie.
Something happened when he met Hee-soo. Here was a girl young enough to be the daughter of his boss. Tall and beautiful, she could be a sultry temptress but no, she was simple and sweet and she played the cello beautifully. But she was also a two-timer. She had Sun-woo’s rich and powerful boss for a sugar daddy, and she had her own boyfriend.
Why did Sun-woo spare her life and that of her boyfriend? If he was in love with her, he could have spared just Hee-soo and killed the guy. I believe he spared them both because he genuinely empathized with the couple. “Don’t see each other again. Erase this memory as if it had never happened.” I’m conjecturing here, but again I think it had something to do with his own past. Perhaps he too had been caught in a similar situation years ago. If he could walk away and erase those memories, why couldn’t she? To survive was more important than anything else. What’s the point of loving if the price you have to pay is death?
Did he spare her also because he was beginning to fall in love? I don’t think so. In her presence he experienced a sweetness that made him forget momentarily the bitterness that was his mongrel existence. To sit in the studio and hear her play her cello, he could close his eyes and just lose himself in the music. There was a purity about her that touched him, yet when you think about it, she wasn’t innocent at all. She had a physical relationship with her two concurrent boyfriends.
Sun-woo and his enemies
Why was Sun-woo so nervous when he was with the gun dealer? There are signs from the beginning that Sun-woo could be nervous and jumpy inside. He was a man on the edge. He was flesh and blood, not a man of steel. His fears were so apparent when he was being mutilated, beaten to a pulp, thrown into the pit and left to die.
To me, his nervousness with the gun dealer was perfectly understandable. The phone-call to President Han could expose his bluff any moment and then what would happen? The gun dealer could finish him off with one shot. His enemies could come any moment. The same hell would repeat itself but in even more nightmarish proportions. Not just his finger this time but a hand, an arm… His burial pit could be three times deeper than the one he barely managed to crawl his way out of just days ago.
About him not knowing how to handle a gun, that’s not necessarily odd. President Baek didn’t carry a gun too and neither did Sun-woo’s boss. And about the comical duo who argued in the car, I thought that whole scene was really tense actually. Here were the two clowns and there was Sun-woo, nervously looking around to see if he had been spotted. He was so exposed out there in the open.
This is the first time I’m watching a Lee Byung-hun movie where the story revolves entirely around him. He’s in almost very frame, isn’t he? I’m completely awed by him here. My admiration for him, already so deep-seated, rose several notches last night as I sat mesmerized in front of the TV. To me, Lee Byung-hun is in the same league as Choi Min-shik. It’s not just because the role is so physically punishing. It’s also the way he portrayed the complexities of his character so convincingly. I felt his pain, bewilderment and rage so acutely.
Finally, was it all just a dream? Of course not.