A Bittersweet Life

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A Bittersweet Life
A Bittersweet Life Soundtrack.jpg
Theatrical poster
Hanja 달콤한
Revised Romanization Dalkomhan insaeng
McCune–Reischauer Talk‘omhan insaeng
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Produced by Park Dong-ho
Eugene Lee
Written by Kim Jee-woon
Starring Lee Byung-hun
Kim Yeong-cheol
Shin Min-ah
Hwang Jung-min
Kim Roi-ha
Lee Ki-young
Music by Jang Young-gyu
Cinematography Kim Ji-yong
Edited by Choi Jae-keun
Distributed by CJ Entertainment
Release date
  • April 1, 2005 (2005-04-01)
Running time
120 minutes
Country South Korea
Language Korean
Box office US$7,582,393[1]

A Bittersweet Life (Hangul달콤한 인생; RRDalkomhan insaeng; lit. "The Sweet Life") is a 2005 South Korean gangster action drama film written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and starring Lee Byung-hun.

Two versions of the film exist, the original theatrical version and the director's cut. The director's cut's edits include slight cutting and re-arrangement of scenes, swapping music placement and some additional scenes that do not appear in the original version of the film.[2]


Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is a high ranking mobster and enforcer for Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol), a cold and calculating crime boss to whom he is unquestionably loyal. The two share concerns over business tensions with Baek Dae-sik (Hwang Jung-min), a son from a rival family, which is when Kang assigns Sun-woo what is perceived to be a simple errand while he is away on a business trip — to shadow his young mistress, Hee-soo (Shin Min-ah), whom he fears is having an "affair" with another man, giving Sun-woo the mandate to kill her (and her paramour) if he manages to discover it. As he performs his duty — following Hee-soo, and escorting her to a music recital one day — he becomes quietly enthralled by the girl's beauty and innocence as glimpses into his lonely, empty personal life become more prevalent. When he does come to discover Hee-soo's lover directly in her home, he fiercely beats him and prepares to inform Kang, but his attraction to her causes him to hesitate. He thus spares the two on the condition that they no longer see each other again, earning him Hee-soo's enmity.

Meanwhile, Sun-woo continues to be embroiled in personal business with Baek Dae-sik over having beaten up several of his henchmen earlier for overstaying their welcome at the hotel. He is then threatened by one of his enforcers to apologize, but he adamantly refuses, fueled by his frustrations over Hee-soo. As he relaxes in his apartment later one night, he is suddenly kidnapped by Baek's men to be tortured, but before they can do so they receive new orders via phone call and he is abruptly carried off to Kang, who has returned from overseas and has found out about his attempted cover-up of Hee-soo's affair. Kang's men torture him into confessing why he lied until he is left alone to think about his answer. A daring but messy escape follows, after which Sun-woo plans his revenge.

Help from one of Sun-woo's loyal men provides him with money and new clothes to go about his plan: he secretly delivers Hee-soo a gift to make amends and sets up a meeting with some local arms dealers, but as they are affiliated with Kang's organization he ends up killing them over a deal to buy a handgun — this incurs a vendetta with the brother of one of the dealers, who promptly sets out to find Sun-woo. He then goes on to set up a veiled rendezvous with Baek Jr. and kills him after a brief conversation, but he is viciously stabbed in the process. Bleeding, his violent shooting spree leads directly to Kang amidst one of his business meetings, where he vents bitterly over how badly he has been treated despite his seven years of service. Kang does not answer, and instead asks if Sun-woo's actions were directly because of Hee-soo. Sun-woo then shoots him, prompting a shootout with Baek Dae-sik's henchmen, who had quickly picked up his trail.

Sun-woo emerges as the only survivor of the battle with the arms dealer's brother finally catching up to him in the same room. Now dying from multiple gunshot wounds, he calls Hee-soo and pauses to reminisce on his only day with her, when he had escorted her to her music recital; in his memory, as he watches her play her cello, he finds himself overwhelmed with emotion and, in a rare moment of contentment, he smiles for the first time in the entire film. As he sheds a tear over this memory, the brother of the arms dealer executes him.

The film ends with a continuation of an earlier scene of Sun-woo looking out of a window at the city below him. After making sure he's alone, he begins to shadowbox his reflection in the glass, looking very happy.


Box office and critical reception[edit]

The film was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.[3] The film at the time had the highest price when its distribution rights were sold to Japan for US$3.2 million.[4]

Critical reception was highly positive, with critics describing it as "organic, essential, beautifully staged and refreshingly realistic."[5] Derek Elley from Variety magazine described the film as "a tour de force of noirish style and Korean ultra-violence that will have genre fans nailed to their seats." [6] Sam Toy from Empire stated Lee "puts in a star-making performance as the brutal chief whip-turned-fugitive, never overplaying what could easily become hammy and clichéd, and easily holds this Korean noir together." He added "this is hugely enjoyable, and beautifully brutal."[7]

Lee Byung-hun was praised for his acting ability with a critic from Cinema Eye saying that he "brings sheer excitement in his performance" and is "an angel dressed in vengeance." The critic also noted that A Bittersweet Life is "the best film of 2005."[8] A critic from BeyondHollywood.com gave the film 4/5 stars.[9] On Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds a 100%, with an average score of 8.1 out of 10 based on ten reviews.

In 2009, Empire named it third in a poll of the "20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably)."

When the film finally ended its theatrical run, it had 1,291,621 admissions.[5]

Awards and nominations[edit]


A Bittersweet Life Original Soundtrack
A Bittersweet Life Soundtrack.jpg
Soundtrack album
Released April 7, 2005
Genre Soundtrack
Label Pony Canyon (Korea)

The A Bittersweet Life original soundtrack was released on April 7, 2005.[13]

A Bittersweet Life OST track listing
No. Title Artist Length
1. "Dialogue #1"     0:27
2. "My Sad Night"     4:00
3. "Irreversible Time"     2:14
4. "Dialogue #2"     0:04
5. "Romance"   Yuhki Kuramoto 5:00
6. "Red Lounge"   Dalparan 4:26
7. "Long Journey"     2:33
8. "Red Ice Rink"   Dalparan 3:05
9. "A Bittersweet Life II"   Dalparan 3:09
10. "A Bittersweet Life"   Dalparan 2:33
11. "Escape"   Dalparan 6:02
12. "Fairness"     2:58
13. "Dark Room"   Dalparan 3:09
14. "Follow"   Dalparan 2:25
15. "Etude in E Minor"     1:55
16. "Dialogue #3"     0:20
17. "Sky Lounge"     4:18
18. "Irreversible Time (Quartet)"     2:09
19. "A Bittersweet Life III"   Yang Pa 5:39
20. "A Honeyed Question"   Hwang Jung-min 4:27


  1. ^ "A Bittersweet Life". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2012-03-02.
  2. ^ A Bittersweet Life (Comparisons): Movie-censorship.com
  3. ^ "Festival de Cannes: A Bittersweet Life". Festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  4. ^ "Duelist Sells Japanese Rights for $5 Million". The Korea Times via Hancinema. 16 February 2005. Retrieved 2015-06-28. 
  5. ^ a b "K-FILM REVIEWS: 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life)". Twitch Film. 7 August 2005. Retrieved 2013-08-10. 
  6. ^ Elley, Derek (15 May 2005). "A Bittersweet Life". Variety. Retrieved 2012-03-02. 
  7. ^ Toy, Sam. "A Bittersweet Life: Another brutally beautiful story of the Korean underworld.". Empire. Retrieved 2013-08-10. 
  8. ^ "A Bittersweet Life". Cinema Eye. Retrieved 2008-02-08. 
  9. ^ "A Bittersweet Life (2005) Movie Review". Beyond Hollywood. 27 July 2005. Retrieved 2008-02-08. 
  10. ^ "A Bittersweet Life - Awards". Cinemasie. Retrieved 2013-08-10. 
  11. ^ "8th edition of DEAUVILLE ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL prizes". Hancinema. 13 March 2006. Retrieved 2013-08-10. 
  12. ^ Brown, Todd (25 July 2006). "Fantasia Winners Announced". Twitch Film. Retrieved 2013-08-10. 
  13. ^ "A Bittersweet Life OST Special Edition". YesAsia. Retrieved 2013-03-02. 

External links[edit]