Byung-hun Lee did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sun-woo Kim in A Bittersweet Life.
Byung-hun Lee in his English language films has been used primarily for his skills with martial arts, often the case with Asian actors, but even then his work in The Magnificent Seven shows that with just a bit of material he can make an impact beyond that. That is only a small glimpse of what he's capable of still since Lee is not a martial artist who acts, he's an actor who knows martial arts. This is Lee's first collaboration with director Jee-Woon Kim, whom he would later work with in The Good, The Bad, The Weird (a film I ought to watch for the title alone), and the excellent I Saw The Devil. After re-watching the latter film, a film I already greatly appreciated, I came to see just what Lee accomplishes in his role which is substantial though in an atypical sort of fashion. That is Lee, and Kim almost spring an emotional trap on you after a purposefully constrained character and performance up until that point. Lee and Kim utilize a similar technique here in their first film together.
This time Lee plays an enforcer for a Korean mob boss Mr. Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim), who deals with any threats of Mr. Kang in an overtly physical manner. In his first scene we see him beat down the crew of a rival gang, and Lee technically gets to show off a bit of his skills as a fighter. This is not what defines his performance for even a moment. In these introductory scenes Lee gives a proper enforcer, who technically might merely be a henchmen in a different film. He's menacing of course and he what one might describe as a cool badass. Lee's work is not so simple at all though. There is something very important that he brings to the character and that is in the depiction of this early take down as well as simply when he is listening to orders from Kang. There is not a hint of sadism in his portrayal nor is he a cold calculated killer like say an Anton Chigurh. Lee instead presents the passion and indifference in Sun-woo of a man doing his job, a job he doesn't relish yet still is good at, no more no less.
Mr. Kang gives Sun-woo the task of following his girlfriend Hee-soo (Min-a Shin) around to ensure that she is not seeing someone else. Sun-woo takes on the job, and continues as the good employee. Now this is very important though in that Lee gives us a man who goes about being enforcer not as someone who doesn't care, but as a man who has been doing it for many years. Lee reveals the idea of the routine in Sun-woo as there is little excitement and no true satisfaction as he does what he is bid, however Lee is careful not to reveal any disdain either. He's essentially a man whose found his position in life as Lee portrays the contentment in a lack of contentment. This is taken to task though through his time with Hee-soo where he interacts with someone who is not full of bluster and false bravado of the men in the underworld. What Lee does in these scenes though is remarkable as he does not easily enforce a change in his performance of Sun-woo just from a few moments spent with an innocent.
The overarching brilliance throughout Lee's work is the nuance he brings to his depiction of the calm mob enforcer type. Lee technically stays very reserved, staying true to his character, yet does so much within this theoretical limitation. In Sun-woo scenes with Hee-soo, Lee is marvelous as he subverts expectations in regards to the character. Lee does not reveal an immediate change, nor does a reflect a romantic interest. He instead subtly reveals just the smallest indication of perhaps a different path for Sun-woo. When Hee-soo questions if he's an enforcer, the shyness that Lee brings as he attempts to explain that he just works at a hotel feels absolutely genuine as he shows Sun-woo trying to explain himself even to himself. These interactions are very light, and technically never amount to more than an acquaintanceship, yet Lee's only through small reactions portrays so effectively Sun-woo realizing his state of indifference by being no longer in the comfort zone of his world and its people.
Eventually Lee does find out that Hee-soo is not loyal to Kang, and initially follows his orders as he physically accosts the man and is about to call Kang to get the kill order. Lee even in this moment still stays reserved yet conveys the internal conflict in just a silent moment. Lee earns the moment in just a glance as he sees what he has done, and chooses to avoid violence for once. This unfortunately leads Kang to allow the rival gang to enact retribution against Sun-woo for his earlier actions, even though he was following Kang's orders with those actions. This sequence, where it could be a case where the actor is forgotten, but Lee does not allow that. In the action and the torture scenes Lee does not make Sun-woo some superhuman. The intensity of the scene is made truly palatable as Lee brings such real desperation to every action. My favorite moment from the scene though is when Kang, over the phone, questions Sun-woo's action. Lee suggests the real betrayal in Sun-woo as he emphasizes a confusion as he tries comprehend his years of loyalty being forgotten for not killing an innocent.
The humanity Lee manages in this performance is truly remarkable, but does even more than what I already have mentioned. It also brings even some very natural humor to his performance, by offering such an honest presence. There is one particularly hilarious scene where Sun-woo goes about purchasing a gun from a dealer, and Lee's reactions are priceless. He never goes broad or plays the moment up, yet earns the levity through how effortlessly he inhabits the character. Now leading up to the final sequence of the film I would already consider this a great performance, yet as later with his final scene in I Saw the Devil, Lee has a surprise waiting for us, two surprises this time. The first being when Sun-woo confronts Mr. Kang, and Lee is incredibly moving by finally breaking down revealing the real heartbreak in Sun-woo from being treated so horribly by a man he served with such loyalty. Then there is one more moment as the film flashback briefly to show as Sun-woo watched Hee-soo play in a string ensemble. Lee loses that contentment in his lack of contentment to Sun-woo, to instead finally reveal a moment of real joy. There is such catharsis and poignancy that comes from Lee in this scene. I love this performance as Lee delivers as the lone anti-hero, yet he goes even deeper to offer a downright beautiful portrait of a man seeing a better life if only for the briefest of time.