“You can do 100 things right, but one mistake can destroy everything.”
These words of gangster kingpin Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol) to his obedient enforcer Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are imaginatively played out in Kim Jee-woon’s follow-up to A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). Part aesthete, part thug, Sun-woo likes to drink bitter espresso, but sweetens it with a sugar cube. When he uncharacteristically falls in love with his boss’ young girlfriend (Shin Min-a), his immaculately measured life comes apart at the seams, and a self emerges that is driven more by emotions. Ensuing scenes of messy rebirth and ultra-violent destruction serve to dramatise Sun-woo’s inner conflict as much as internecine gangland struggles. This makes A Bittersweet Life a genre film that is as cerebral, psychological, even spiritual as it is viscerally thrilling, with untold depths reflected in the brilliant sheen of its surfaces.