A gangster movie with a touch of realism

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A gangster movie with a touch of realism

“I wanted to make a ‘cool’ film,” said film director Kim Jee-woon describing his new film, “Bittersweet Life,” released last Friday.
As Mr. Kim wished, the film turned out to be “cool” enough, capturing the audience with sophisticated visual effects that gave its scenes glowing luster.
Action scenes are sophisticated, and the film sets were picture perfect, looking like interiors in design magazines. Even a gray tunnel in Seoul looks eerily beautiful in the film. However, what makes the film really cool is Lee Byung-hun, the lead actor.
Lee, 34, who has established his fame as a multi-faceted actor, plays Seon-u, a once-powerful gang member, destroyed after falling in love with his mafia boss’s lover.
Lee pulls 90 percent of the film’s weight, whether he is escaping from a mud hole or fighting with gangsters.
In scenes that highlight his character’s internal conflict, he fully traps the audience by his convincing portrayal of a tormented outcast.
What the director kept saying while shooting the film was even, “Seon-u should look really cool.”
Lee recalls that in the past, creating such a character was extremely difficult. The harder he tried for that “look” in films, the more audiences and critics would say he was trying too hard, resulting in poor ticket sales. However, as he gained more experience, audiences started to recognize his talents.
In “The Harmonium In My Memory” (1999), “Joint Security Area” (2000) and “Bungee Jumping Of Their Own” (2000), Lee was not wearing the awkward “pretty face” any more, and audiences started giving him plaudits for convincing portrayals.
The film, “Bittersweet Life,” proves not only that he can really act, but also that he can look cool. Throughout the film, Lee looks comfortable and confident.
“In the past, when I read film scripts, I only read my lines. I would choose which film to shoot depending on whether I would look good in the film or not,” he says.
“But one day, I started looking at the script as a whole. I started shooting the film if the scenario and the director were good, regardless of the genre. This time, I chose ‘Bittersweet Life’ because I liked the director. I love his movies.”
However, working with Kim wasn’t so easy, Lee recalls.
“You know, the format of film noire tends to exaggerate reality. Director Kim’s style was also like that. But my specialty was acting, realistically. So there were some conflicts.”
No matter how much Lee insisted on acting certain way, Kim would say, “Still, try doing it this way.” And Lee would respond, “Let’s see how it goes after I do it my way first.” So some scenes were shot Lee’s way, while others were done Kim’s way.
Lee’s favorite scene is not the one where he violently shoots guns, but a part when he goes to an illegal weapons dealer after one of his escapes.
“If I were in audience’s shoes, I wouldn’t be interested in watching ‘a shooting movie’ made in Korea. I believe that the audience should be fully attached to the movie as if it is their reality, and shooting is not part of Korean culture,” Lee comments.
“The reason why I like the scene is because it shows Seon-u’s unfamiliarity with guns, just like other Koreans’ unfamiliarity with them. I think that would give the film some sense of reality so that the audience would agree with it.”
Still, it is uncertain whether the film will meet the taste of Korean audiences who are rather comfortable with other genres. But the film has already been sold to a Japanese distributor for $3.2 million on Lee’s name value alone.
“I think I’ve been in this field for too long to worry about whether this film is going to be successful or not. I’m quite beyond that now,” says Lee.
“Well, life goes on. What’s meant to happen happens.” Lee believes in destiny, in that sense.
“I didn’t know I would be an actor for this long. When I made my first debut as an actor, I thought it would be just a short-term experience.
“But once I got into this field, I changed my mind,” he says. “I realized being an actor is not about just looking good, but something I can devote my life to.”

by Ahn Hai-ri

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