Film music and Kim Jee-woon:
A Bittersweet Life (2005) original soundtrack

The significance of music in the highly iconographic films of Kim Jee-woon is seldom touched on but worth consideration. The use of contemporary radio hits in The Quiet Family, The Foul King and The Good, The Bad, The Weird, and importantly atypical orchestration in A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life and again The Good, The Bad, The Weird speaks volumes for the director’s approach.

In his debut film The Quiet Family (1998), Kim plays fast and loose with American popular culture and representational conventions. The exuberant soundtrack intersperses retro Long Island band The Stray Cats and Latin-inflected hip hop with The Partridge Family ditty “I Think I Love You” and Memphis soul/rock band The Box Tops; this wonderfully antiquated vision of recycled Americana is further refined by the repetition in several hokey grave-digging and father-on-the-toilet sequences of Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” the bubbling, tumbling rock tune which Martin Scorsese integrated so well into the final Stones/Harrison rock melange of Goodfellas (1990, U.S.). While his warm-hearted follow-up The Foul King (2000) is positively barren alongside his debut in musical terms, it marked Kim’s first collaboration with Jang
Young-kyu, whose minimalist electronic score crosses back and forth between easygoing vignettes and scrappily merry interludes (at times creeping in an idiophone for good measure, and a Morricone riff in the denouement).

For A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Kim collaborated with the prolific composer Lee Byung-woo, in whose trusty musical care he originally bestowed his Three segment Memories (2002). (Lee has since scored such whopping genre titles as The Red Shoes, The Host, Voice of a Murderer, Hansel & Gretel, Mother and Haeundae.) The result was a profound and unsettling score, eschewing the sort of shrieking, Hermannian variations so regularly used in horror cinema for an extraordinary series of nostalgic cues. Culminating in the perfect “Lullaby,” Lee’s melodies and themes are often at odds with the piercing tone of the film, contrasting the pain of memory and desire with the paranoid sensibilities and Lynchian distortion of a Badalamenti cue. For the positively bonkers The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), a score so indiscriminate and unshackled that it genrifies for the film’s rollicking setpiece Nina Simone’s touching “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” Kim collaborated again with Jang Young-kyu and new arrival Dalpalan. For their efforts both artists were nominated in the Composers category at the 3rd Asian Film Awards (they lost out, not unjustly, to Joe Hisaishi). Before this, however, Jang and Dalpalan worked together on Kim’s revenge thriller A Bittersweet Life (2005), producing an excellent score which deserves closer inspection.

Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005) was scored by Jang Young-kyu and Dalpalan, featuring Japanese pianist Kuramoto Yuhki

The musicians were joined importantly by Japanese pianist Kuramoto Yuhki, who recorded the film’s critical music cue entitled “Romance.” In addition, the composers pay homage to the late classical Spanish guitarist Francisco Tarrega, whose “Etude in E Minor” becomes the signature tune of (and in key respects typifies) the album. What emerges is an unusually jazzy and highly individualistic score which does a fine job of encapsulating the different themes of the film. These include our hero Sun-woo’s loyalty to Kang, the romantic melody for Hee-soo (the girl he shadows), the very culture of femininity which she embodies and which is still unique to Sun-woo, the besieging of Kang by “friendly” enemies, the slapstick fun to be had with knuckleheads Myung-gu and Mikhail, the vengeance theme which pushes the confrontation with Kang in the hotel’s Sky Lounge, and lastly, but of course, Sun-woo’s relationship with his own reflection and image, a motif which the director endows here with great significance. In its simplicity, for example, “Follow” transforms the initial spark of wonder that takes hold of Sun-woo into an unobtrusively cool, tinkling arrangement, the purposeful rhythm of it repeating again as our hero drives into the city late at night, the erotic undertone of the theme surfacing towards the close as he gazes down upon Hee-soo in a busy night-club flirting with her lover on the dance-floor. The “Romance” cue is based on the source music to which Hee-soo later plays cello accompaniment, and though the motif is never once repeated on the album it finds corresponding value nonetheless in familiar themes like “Irreversible Time,” its reprise “(Quartet) Irreversible Time” and in the wry sadness of “Fairness.” With the exception of Tarrega’s “Etude in E Minor,” perhaps the most recognisable cue is “My Sad Night,” which marks the formal introduction on the album of classical guitar and folk elements. A loose and fanciful arrangement, the cue catches the specifically European influences of the film.

Jang and Dalpalan then provide variations on established themes. For “Escape” they produce a strange synthesised sound which builds to a slower, serious and other-worldly take on the call-to-arms cue “Sky Lounge,” while the more threatening (for being so subtle) “Red Lounge” pulls away from the melody of “Escape” (its close cousin), finally reprising the leitmotif of the album on piano for a telling shift in the fadeout. “A Bittersweet Life II” brings appropriately a sense of small-scale intimacy and heritage to the underworlds of crime bosses Kang and Baek; and though it’s listed after “A Bittersweet Life II” as track number ten on the album (and understandably so), the reprise, entitled “A Bittersweet Life,” appears first in the film over a magnificent scene in which Sun-woo decides that his only course of action is to take bloody revenge against Kang.

Kim used a range of popular songs in his debut The Quiet Family (1998)

Lee Byung-woo composed a nostalgic score for A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

The most successful track on the album is of course “Sky Lounge,” the film’s introductory music cue. Since vanity is the key theme here, virtually every frame in this sequence is elegantly composed and the grooming impeccable. But for pure swagger and propulsive energy the sequence is indebted to the music: from the eponymous Sky Lounge of the title, where Sun-woo savours one final taste of that exquisite dessert on his table, to the lower levels of the hotel where patrons cross its unblemished marble floors, from the thumping club room where drunken men encumber their young mistresses shepherding them away from harm, to an exclusive member’s suite where Sun-woo has to turf out a trio of petty gangsters — the cue (and the scene) is all about ego and hubris. It rounds out a robust and thoughtful arrangement of eloquent and exciting compositions, and as soundtracks go A Bittersweet Life is a classic of modern Korean cinema.

10 March, 2011
This piece was originally published by New Korean Cinema.


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