Filmmaker Retrospective: The Versatile Cinema of Kim Jee-woon

4. A Bittersweet Life (2005)

A Bittersweet Life movie

Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) is manager and top enforcer for a mob-run hotel business, managing the hotel’s elegant upper section’s restaurant. Of all the employees there, Sun-woo has the most power outside his boss Kang (Kim Yeong-cheol), who respects Sun-woo greatly, but mostly for his reserved, no-nonsense worth ethic and demeanor.

When Sun-woo is tasked to spy on Kang’s mistress for him, he accepts, with the instruction to kill the woman if she’s found unfaithful. When Sun-woo finds Kang’s suspicions to be proven, he frustratingly gives her a chance to flee town. His one act of genuine kindness sets off a chain of events that makes Sun-woo a target from his own organization.

If South Koreans have excelled in a certain genre, it’s the gangster film. While there are a few great standouts in recent memory, many will blend together with all the black suits, screaming, pipe-wielding men beating each other over money, honor, betrayal, or just because (don’t get me started on the stabbings). So it’s quite refreshing to see Kim’s entry into the gangster genre find his inspiration mostly from France specifically the works of Jean-Pierre Melville.

While many South Korean directors have cited Scorcese and/or Coppolla as inspirations for their films, Kim found Melville’s crime films not only engaging, but incredibly stylish, especially when Alain Deloin happens to be present. Kim states in the 2005 Florence interview that he took two specific elements from Melville for this film: meaning and expression.

For meaning, he wanted to expose the “vanity of life” through a cynical perspective, with the critique suitable for the supporting characters around Sun-woo. For expression, he specifically adapted Melville’s formal elements – lighting, actor’s body language, atmosphere, etc. – for maximum visual impact without the need for dialogue.

Sun-woo rarely speaks unless it’s absolutely necessary. When time comes for something like small-talk, he’s awkward an unable to keep his composure. Whether it’s eating a cake, listening to an argument, or the way he fights some thugs, Lee and Kim do a great job of using his physical performance to provide a sense of Sun-woo’s personality. It’s not a stretch to say that Lee’s is channeling Alain Delon in “Le Samurai.”


What I think makes this gangster film a bit more favorable internationally is due to Kim’s ability to have recognizable elements lost in other South Korean gangsters. There are a couple scenes that are quiet, comedic, but erupts into violence, borrowing from the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.

The film ends with a large-scale shootout that other South Korean films simply don’t bother. It’s similar to a John Woo shoot-em-up from the late-80s, but without the ballet-like choreography of his star. It’s an appropriate climax for this story, whereas other films would settle with simply knifing the protagonist repeatedly. It’s a much more intimate form of onscreen violence, but Kim is able to convey that sentiment while assault rifles tear through walls.

It’s a distinct gangster, one in which many of today’s filmmakers borrow from constantly. It’s not the typical rise-and-fall narrative, nor one that concerns itself with a setting’s history in telling a particular story.

Many won’t really understand the character that deeply, since Sun-woo is quiet and usually deathly serious. But Kim is able to gain a lot of mileage from the still, quiet beginning of the film, that when the action explodes in the second half of “A Bittersweet Life,” it makes complete sense, even down to the Buddhist parables.

Allen Hughes was set to direct an English-language remake in 2012, with plans to release the film in 2014. So far, I haven’t been able to find any updates, so I don’t want to assume the project is dead. If anything, it could be like “Oldboy” all over again.


5. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

In 1930s Manchuria, The Bad (Lee Byung-hun) – a notorious outlaw – is hired by a man to board a train and to steal a treasure map from an important Japanese soldier. On the same train is The Good (Jung Woo-sung) – a bounty hunter – waiting to finally bring in The Bad. When The Bad and his outlaws hijack the train, chaos ensues as both sides try to complete their mission.

However, unbeknownst to both of them, The Weird (Song Kang-ho) – a moronic, petty thief – had already robbed the train on his own, eventually taking the map. What follows is an all out chase for The Weird and the map, as The Good, The Bad, the Japanese Army, and Manchurian bandits tear towns and deserts apart to find the buffoonish thief.

Based on the title alone, one should be able to guess what type of film Kim is making, inspirations and all. It’s a incredibly loose reworking of Sergio Leone’s now classic, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” When creating his title, he didn’t like “The Ugly” moniker,worryong about the negative connotations that people might associate with the word and character.

With “The Weird,” he liked how it the descriptive could go both ways, which essentially works since “The Weird” is the only one of the three that actually has some sort of personality and backstory to warrant that kind of behavior.

While he studied iconography and the conventions of the genre, Kim also looked east to borrow some elements from (once again) John Woo and Tsui Hark, but also the slapstick body humor, courtesy of someone like Jackie Chan. Using Leone’s original as the framework, Kim set out to craft his own film — distilling his overall goal into two words: “oriental western.”

There’s more than people simply don’t shoot each other. There are chases, wire-work acrobatics, explosions, swordplay, and some slapstick comedy to keep the action swift, exciting, and a joy to watch. With The Weird especially, you see some Jackie Chan in the performance, down to Song’s control of his facial expressions during the action — something Chan mastered early in his career.

As individual action set pieces, they all do something unique and interesting, almost working as standalone action short films. Whether it be opening train heist, the bandit market shootout, or the big chase at the end, there’s a lot to inventive directing that’s sure to inspire many future filmmakers. It’s the scenes that connect the action that mainly don’t work, shockingly overwrought in execution.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

“The Good, The Bad, The Weird” is also where Kim starts to get a bit excessive with control, and the film isn’t the only thing to suffer as a result. Despite having stellar action sequences, the overall film runs at 139 minutes when the main goals of almost the characters are uniformly simple. You feel the length when things aren’t wild, and the attempt at finding a profound message regarding identity in a lawless land falls flat.

While the main talent had fun playing these characters, the experience on set was quite horrific. Props to Kim for actually shooting in Dunhuang, China and having the actors do most of their stunts — the fights, shootouts, horseback riding, etc.— but this attention to detail also led to setting off explosions near performers on horseback, taking the life of one stuntman during shooting.

“The Good, The Bad, The Weird” isn’t a revelation in the western genre, and isn’t the first big western from the east. Cult audiences are probably quite familiar with Thailand’s “Tears of the Black Tiger” from 2000 or Takashi Miike’s western-samurai experiment in 2007 “Sukiyaki Western Django.”

While those films are interesting love letters to the genre, Kim reached way higher than most filmmakers in terms of scope and came short in making an action masterpiece. Foreign distributors even cut the film by seven or eight minutes, and it still feels long.


6. I Saw the Devil (2010)

I Saw the Devil (2010)

Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is vicious serial killer with almost no remorse. One snowy night, he finds a woman stranded on the side of the street. He knocks her out, taking her body back home to what’s ostensibly his lair. Ignoring her pleas, he dismembers her body. The lady’s fiancee is Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), a secret service agent.

After he mourns his deceased wife, Soo-hyeon tracks down the person responsible with the help of the girl’s father. When he reaches Kyung-chul’s location, Soo-hyeon not only beats the life out of the psychopath, but discovers he’s responsible for his fiancee’s death. Rather than just ending his life, Soo-hyeon has planned something much more diabolical instead.

In the simplest way possible, Kim wanted to make the purest revenge film to end all revenge films. For someone who’s dabbled in genres beyond the popular few in South Korea, he turned the lens inward to a sub-genre that’s dominated by his peers. He started with the idea of man who’s so shaken by the lost of love, that’s he’s simply compelled to react.

He then imagined the two opposing forces of good and evil as “fire” and “ice,” which lead to the casting of Lee Byung-hun for his cool and steely performances, while Choi Min-sik is probably the best actor over there at being wild and explosive. What grew from that initial setup was big enough to cause a wave of hype throughout the world, especially when considering Choi had stopped acting for a bit after working with Park Chan-wook on “Lady Vengeance.”

Speaking of, he and several other of the nation’s finest actors and filmmakers would frequent the set, also excited at seeing Kim finally do a straightforward thriller. Which is funny, because many would consider this a horror film. Not Kim. He would rather call it a “hardcore thriller with horror elements,” even when the set design involving Choi’s character screams bleak and oppressing — a hellscape if I’ve ever seen one.

kim jee woon movies

The film has been criticized for being overtly violent and excessive, a bit too over-the-top to take seriously. This was intentional, since Kim noticed that the violence in modern thrillers were embracing gore and the macabre. He wanted to push the violence as far as he could without relying solely on shock factor.

To push the violence into the extreme feels logical in both execution and existence. (Minor spoilers from this point on) When Kyung-chul is caught halfway through the film, he’s not executed, but rather let go by the protagonist, only to track him down and beat him every time he tries to do something heinous.

As a result, the act of revenge doesn’t bring catharsis, but corruption. After a certain point, the line is blurred between good and evil is blurred when Soo-hyeon starts doing things that are quite twisted, regardless of the intent. To translate that visually, the action has to ramp up in intensity spectacularly, hence the film building on the violence and gore. Kim was tired of films ending with the revenge without the consequences of the action, digging the second grave only to leave it empty.

Despite being excessively vile, violent, and incredibly uncompromising, “I Saw the Devil” is one of Kim’s most gorgeous films, combining the color scheme from “A Tale of Two Sisters” and some of the lighting from “A Bittersweet Life.” Even though “I Saw the Devil” is actually the longest of all his films – 144 minutes – it never drags and hardly any issues with the pacing.

Individual scenes have purpose and don’t feel wasted, while the set pieces are well constructed for maximum emotional effect. Whether it’s ramping up tension in the opening attack or keeping things visceral with a fight inside a cab, Kim’s scenes are hardly dull. They might teeter into the unintentional comedy. At the very least, it’s dark comedy.

Even though Kim would like audiences to think about the motivations and the scenes around certain set pieces, it’s tough, since they’re so well made. “I Saw the Devil” will undoubtedly leave some sort of lasting impression.


7. The Last Stand (2013)

the last stand

Sheriff Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the tired Sheriff of a Mexican border-town called Sommerton Junction, a modest little slice of Americana as many would say. When a crime lord named Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from FBI custody in Las Vegas, he hops into a modified Corvette as he guns it for the border.

As he’s driving past all the local and federal law enforcement sent to stop him, FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) realizes that Cortez is heading south, leading him to contact law enforcement in nearby areas. One night, the Sheriff and his deputies get entangled in a firefight against some of Cortez’s men. When tragedy strikes Owens’s team, he notifies Agent Bannister. The Sheriff and his ragtag team of deputies prepare to stop Cortez and his people.

As early as 2008, Kim Jee-woon — along with his fellow filmmaker friends Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho — had been shooting down the opportunity to make films in Europe and Hollywood, stating he’d personally get offers monthly. Money and scale didn’t interest him as much as total creative control. While “The Last Stand” wasn’t penned by Kim, he was present since the earliest phase.

The end result is definitely a mixed bag. On one hand, the action sequences are well directed and assured. Arnold does his thing, and Forest Whitaker is the standout with a performance that goes all the way to eleven. Schwarzenegger especially knows first-hand the dangers of a foreign filmmakers being destroyed by the studio system, ultimately delivering a film void of the essence and the voice that the filmmaker was originally hired to reproduce for the U.S..

As a result, “The Last Stand” feels more like an older film Schwarzenegger would’ve done in his prime, rather than a career peak by Kim Jee-woon. It’s a fun little action film, nothing more. If Arnold made this in his prime, lines like “I’m the Sheriff” or “You fucked up my day off” could’ve easily fit along with his most memorable, quotable lines.

the last stand movie

Personally, I think the script is a bit underdeveloped, since the quieter scenes between the action can’t maintain the pacing no matter how stylish Kim directs the film. This is the most evident during the scenes with the FBI Agents, lit with a cool blue tint and shot in extreme angles that screams intense, despite being mostly two-shots of people talking. Whitaker is great in those scenes, while everything else is not.

But “The Last Stand” is also hopeful, something that couldn’t be said to other similar Asian filmmakers in the past. Most of the actors — despite working through two translators — understood the performance Kim desired. Remember how I said he acted out his scenes? His performance for the actors said more than any translator could.

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura understood Kim’s directorial style, and gave him as much freedom as possible, while he and Schwarzenegger tried their best to ease him into the Hollywood mode of production, particularly with the speed of shooting. Even though it wasn’t a success like Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” Kim finds himself with at least two upcoming projects, one in South Korea and another in America.


In Closing…

As a fan of Kim Jee-woon and South Korean film in general, the director’s future feels like a win-win scenario. Not only do I hope they are both successful, but I wish the remake of “A Bittersweet Life” and “I Saw the Devil” fare better than “The Uninvited” or the U.S. remakes of “Oldboy” and “My Sassy Girl.” With “I Saw the Devil” remake, I’m especially excited because it’s being handled by Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, two genre-bending filmmakers responsible for “You’re Next” and “The Guest.”

If Kim gets to make his next film, then he’ll finally get the science-fiction he’s been wanting to make ever since his short film — “Heavenly Creature” — in the anthology film “Doomsday Book.” Judging by how great that short turned out, I’m excited to see what he’s able to create. Although I haven’t read Ed Brubaker’s “Coward,” based on the premise alone, the property sounds quite fitting for Kim.

While I understand that this list lacks quite the deep, textual analysis for each film, part of the fun in watching Kim Jee-woon’s films (at least the later ones) is to dissect them for all the separate conventions, iconography, themes, and ideas working together in an unusual harmony.

His films are probably go down smoother than most South Korean filmmakers, also being the most accessible internationally, both arthouse and mainstream. He’s not as operatic Park Chan-wook or socially conscious as Bong Joon-ho, but Kim Jee-woon’s films are entertaining, familiar, and distinct genre exercises that are instantly recognizable and a joy to experience.

Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.