On its release back in 2001, “Friend” quickly became not only a massive hit, setting new box office records in the process, but a cultural phenomenon, its tale of brotherhood, loyalty and gangster still having a marked influence on Korean films today. Self-contained and building to a satisfying conclusion, it was never the kind of film that really cried out for a sequel, though now, some 12 years later, director Kwak Kyung Taek and various cast members return with follow-up “Friend, the Great Legacy”, which both follows the fates of the original characters while delving further into their pasts and family backgrounds.
Kicking off 17 years after the first film (it’s definitely advisable to watch “Friend” again before embarking on “The Great Legacy”), the plot focuses on Joon Suk (Yoo Oh Sung), serving time after having taken the blame for the killing of his friend Dong Soo (Jang Dong Gun). While behind bars, he’s approached by an old female friend, who begs him to look after her violent and rebellious son Sung Hoon (up and coming actor Kim Woo Bin, “The Heirs”), recently jailed for gang brawling. On his release, Joon Suk sets out to reclaim his criminal empire, coming up against his former underling Eun Ki (Jung Ho Bin), who now leads the gang and who isn’t exactly happy to see his boss return. Although Sung Hoon joins Joon Suk, the two are unaware that he’s actually Dong Soo’s son, a secret which is only likely to lead to more heartache and brutality. Meanwhile, the film also traces the rise of Joon Suk’s father Lee (Ju Jin Mo, who previously worked with Kwak Kyung Taek on the 2007 gangster melodrama “A Love”) who fought his way up the ranks of the Busan underworld back in the 1960s.
Although “Friend, the Great Legacy” was a sizable box office hit in its own right, pulling in almost 3 million admissions, it didn’t have quite the same impact as the original, with some critics putting this down to it being a very different film. This is certainly true, and Kwak Kyung Taek does indeed head down a different path with the sequel, though this is arguably a good thing and preferable to a simple re-tread. Instead of a tale of brotherhood, this time around the film sticks mainly to following Joon Suk and quite refreshingly isn’t the usual kind of regretful gangster journey.
Packed full of lots of dialogue about a man doing what he should, it’s all very macho, and though there’s plenty of brooding and angst, the power struggle of the narrative is driven by revenge and ambition. In this, it definitely resembles recent efforts like “Nameless Gangster” and “New World” far more than the original “Friend”, though there’s a strong enough sense of character to give the film its own sense of identity. Kwak wins points for trying something different, and while in the grander scheme of things the film isn’t particularly fresh or original, it makes for a fitting continuation of the story rather than a mere repetition.
Thanks in no small part to his general lack of repentance, Joon Suk makes for a decent, if one-note protagonist, and his relationship with Sung Hoon is an interesting one, Kwak aiming for a mix of father/son and master/apprentice. In this regard, the film is more about what path Sung Hoon will take as opposed to Joon Suk, though this is similarly handled well and interesting, building to an at least partly unexpected and ambiguous resolution. This helps to replace the four friend central dynamic of the original and the film does have enough depth and emotional substance to make it engaging, if perhaps not terribly moving. Sadly, the same can’t really be said about the scenes involving Lee back in the 60s, which don’t really work at all, and which seem to have little, if any connection to the present day narrative. Though Kwak was presumably aiming for some kind of “Godfather” style inter-generational sprawl, these sequences only serve to slow things down, and at best only add the odd touches of insight into why Joon Suk is so intent on clawing his way back to the top.
Still, this isn’t enough to derail the film, and Kwak keeps things moving with plenty of brawling and several large scale violent set pieces. Bats, knives and fists are thrown about with bloody abandon throughout, and this helps give the film a tough, gritty edge despite its glossy production values and occasional over reliance on slow-motion and melodramatic music. Kwak is a seasoned director and knows the genre well, and though not really up to the standard of the much-loved original, as a belated and unnecessary sequel, “Friend, the Great Legacy” is definitely better than it has any right to be, and a solid modern Korean gangster flick in its own right.
Kyung-Taek Kwak (director) / Kyung-Taek Kwak (screenplay)
CAST: Oh-seong Yu … Lee Jeong Suk
Jin-mo Ju … Yi Cheol Ju
Woo-bin Kim … Choi Sung Hun