The New York Asian Film Festival is celebrating its fifth birthday this year with its largest-ever slate of films: 25 features on just two screens, most of which are making their New York or US debuts. The festival is dedicated to exploring "the latest and greatest movies from Asia," and the 2006 line-up includes works from Japan, China, Korea, India, Thailand, and Malaysia. The festival runs from June 15 to July 1; watch the official website for ticket and showtime information.
A Bittersweet Life is an utterly gorgeous film. Filled with surfaces so polished they seem to glow, and tableaus so carefully composed they look like paintings, it aspires to and often achieves a magical sort of visual perfection. Each scene and face is lit with aggressive disregard for reality; director Kim Ji-woon's only concern is what looks best, and his meticulous attention to detail is our reward as we take in one sumptuous image after another.
For a time, the film's content matches its look. At the center of A Bittersweet Life is Sun-Woo, a tightly controlled gang enforcer who, after seven years of service, has earned the trust of his employer. Played by Lee Byung-hun in a narrow black suit, Sun-Woo's resemblance to Alain Delon's Jef in Le Samouraï couldn't possibly be accidental. Lee shares Delon's wide, blank eyes, as well as his uncanny ability to make his face go completely slack. Like Jef, Sun-Woo is disciplined, unquestioning, and careful. And, like Jef, he make a conscious choice to disobey his employer over a woman. After the betrayal, both men use their ruthlessness and skill for themselves for the first time, a choice that makes turning back impossible. In Le Samouraï, Jef's actions are smart, informed, and decisive. In A Bittersweet Life, however, both Sun-Woo's and the film's careful control fall apart, and what had been an intelligent, highly promising convergence of character and structure turns into a bloody mess with a sky-high body count and very little in the way character development.