If Brian De Palma collaborated with somebody like Douglas Sirk to create a Korean action-thriller, the result would probably resemble Ji-woon Kim’s A Bittersweet Life; an amazingly violent, brutal revenge flick that simultaneously manages to be a fascinating character study. Much like the pictures of Park Chan-wook (OldboySympathy for Mr. Vengeance), director Ji-woon Kim cranked up the melodramatic aspects of the story for this picture, but interspersed them with exhilarating bursts of violence. On top of this, Kim’s expert touch leavens the frantic action beats with moments of comedy, touching silence and physical bravado. Admittedly, A Bittersweet Life tells an unoriginal, highly derivative story. However, what the film lacks in originality it more than compensates in style and verve, to the extent that you’ll be far too involved in the movie to care.

For several years, Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee) has worked as an enforcer for one of Korea’s largest crime syndicates while providing himself with a cover by working at a restaurant. Sun-woo’s boss President Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim) is involved in a relationship with a young woman named Hee-soo (Min-a Shin), but becomes convinced that she is cheating on him. With Kang leaving for the weekend, he asks Sun-woo to follow Hee-soo and look for signs of treachery. Sun-woo is instructed to kill Hee-soo if she is in fact seeing somebody else. When Kang’s suspicions turn out to be true, Sun-woo makes a decision that seals his fate and has serious repercussions for everybody. When somebody in Sun-woo’s line of work makes a bad decision, a lot of people are going to end up dead…

Despite the hackneyed premise, A Bittersweet Life succeeds due to its top-notch execution. While the film admittedly takes a good hour to get into gear, the at times painstakingly sluggish set-up is worth it for the film’s final half. In terms of the action, this flick does not disappoint. The action sequences here are spectacularly brutal, bloody and nihilistic, with moments of violence that Tarantino would be proud of. While watching Sun-woo stroll around slaughtering gangsters with the cool of Steve McQueen and the cold, focused efficiency of a Terminator, you could be forgiven for believing Tarantino or John Woo directed the flick. Due to the utterly unapologetic level of violence, it is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. With that said, though, the movie at its core is more concerned with concepts of honour, love, chance, choice and, ultimately, the meaning of life in a brutal, cruel world of violence. A Bittersweet Life additionally benefits from a thought-provoking final scene which leaves room for people to interpret the movie however they wish.

The cinematography and art direction for the film is absolutely gorgeous to observe. Even during the film’s slower first half, the visuals are a treat for the eye due to the interesting colour schemes and the stylish camera angles. The style of the film is very measured – shots were clearly given due consideration, as edits range from quick to remarkably slow. The fight scenes are an effective demonstration of this; a viewer is actually given the chance to watch and appreciate the elegant choreography. In a way, the visuals resemble Michael Mann’s work, but the overall style is highly distinctive. While several moments throughout the movie become too ridiculous to take seriously, humour continually shines through to reassure us of its absurdness. For instance, a scene involving Sun-woo desperately trying to beat an arms dealer to the punch by attempting to assemble a firearm when his identity is exposed, or a scene of banter between a Russian and a Korean before Sun-woo just gets fed up with them.

In the role of the stone-faced Sun-woo, Byung-hun Lee is pitch-perfect; playing the character with a tremendous amount of cool, and coming off as a consummate mobster perpetually wearing a neat black suit who never cracks a smile. The bravura performance is surprisingly profound, as well. Sun-woo is not a thoughtless killing machine. As the wheels of his life begin to come off, he runs through a full swath of emotions – compassion, anger, disgust, exasperation, disappointment – each of which is accompanied by a stab wound, a bullet wound, or a punch to the face.

There’s no deep meaning to A Bittersweet Life, and it would be foolhardy to assign one to the film. This is a simple story, but the visual dexterity ensures the film is a consistently entertaining and engaging ride with a story that’s easy to follow. Writer-director Ji-woon Kim even refrained from including an obvious, unlikely romance, which is laudable considering the nature of typical Hollywood action movies.

8.2/10