“A Bittersweet Life”, directed by Kim Jee-woon, follows Kim Sun-woo (played by South Korean superstar Byung-hun Lee), a hotel manager who's actually a trusted mob enforcer, as he clashes with his duty and what he sees as the right thing to do morally.
The film opens with Sun-woo removing some belligerent thugs from the hotel. He's unapologetic towards their boss, who's a rival mob leader, and is openly rude to him. Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim), Sun-woo’s boss, then holds a special meeting in which he lets him in on a secret: he's afraid that his young mistress (Min-a Shin) is cheating on him. Since he's going to be out of town for three days, he orders Sun-woo to watch her and, if it turns out that she's seeing someone else, kill both her and boyfriend.
Sun-woo accepts his mission and begins following the girl and after seeing her he begins to develop feelings that are new to him, making him realize just how lonely his current life is. Sure enough, it turns out she's cheating on his boss. Unable to kill her and her boyfriend, he lets them go on the condition that they don’t ever see each other again. Word of this gets out and soon he finds himself in trouble with the rival family as well as his own.
The acting is very good in this film; Byung-hun Lee gives the main character enough range that it's easy to feel that there's a truly lonely individual under the cool tough guy demeanor that's so prominently featured in the movie. What really stands out the most is the directing. It’s exceptionally violent and realistic with its action, and the fight scenes are fast and brutal. There's one incredible sequence in which Sun-woo eludes his captors, and every aspect of the environment is utilized for him to realistically demonstrate an escape.
Aside from his superb fighting ability, he's also incredibly resourceful. There are a few shots that almost seem as if the camera is rigged to Sun-woos back; it literally ducks with him as he dodges a punch and it's very involving and different, which only makes these action scenes more entertaining and exciting. The movie overall is very stylized and sleek, thanks to a variety of tracking shots and sharp colors. It embodies everything that makes a gangster film seem cool.
There's also an interesting dynamic between the mafia rules and structure and personal moral beliefs. The reason for Sun-woo being betrayed and hunted by his own group is more than just his inability to complete the task assigned. It’s also more than the reason for which he failed to complete the task (a reason that Sun-woo himself doesn’t truly understand). It’s because he wouldn’t admit to being at fault. In the mafia hierarchy the boss is always right; even if he’s wrong. There's a great scene in which Kang is explaining this to the rival mob boss. It's Sun-woo’s dedication to what he truly felt was the right thing to do that gets him in the predicament he ends up in, and he's so uncompromising in his beliefs that the end of his story is inevitable and bloody.
“A Bittersweet Life” is a sleek and stylish action film and there's enough substance to match it, thanks to strong writing, directing, and acting.