Kyung-taek Kwak’s “Friend” is a memoir, a recollection of memories about 4 friends and their divergent paths from childhood to school to adulthood. The film is narrated by one of the 4 friends, middle-class Sang-taek (Tae-hwa Seo), the smartest kid in the bunch. The rest of the friends include Jeong-suk (Oh-seong Yu), the son of a gangster; Dong-su (Dong-kun Jang), the son of an undertaker and Jeong-suk’s right hand man; and Jeong-ho (Un-taek Jeong), the foursome’s comic foil.
The film opens in 1976 and follows the friends up to 1993, when conflict between two of the friends bring all 4 back together again. In-between, we follow the separate lives of the foursome as they part, come together again, and part once more. Through it all, their friendship is tested and strained and tested some more, especially when two of the four friends end up on opposing sides of a violent gang war.
I am not all that concern about spoiling the plot of “Friend”, because if you’ve seen any amount of films based on the gangster lifestyle “Friend” is an easy movie to predict. From Sang-taek’s introduction of his buddies (done in freeze frame style) and the tone that he uses to introduce each one, we already have a good idea how each friend is going to end up. In a way, writer/director Yung-Taek Kwak shows his hand too soon, and the film fails to generate tension because of it. There really is no surprise when the ending finally comes; it’s only a surprise how it gets there.
The performances of Oh-seong Yu (“The Spy”) and Dong-kun Jang (“The Anarchists”) are the movie’s highlights. Both men have great understanding of their characters and are riveting onscreen, especially when they are interacting. Tae-hwa Seo (“Fun Movie”) is probably the movie’s weakest link, not because he’s a bad actor, but because his character has very little to do. As the fourth friend, Un-taek Jeong (“My Boss, My Hero”) floats in and out whenever he’s needed for exposition or comedy, but otherwise doesn’t make much of an impact. Perhaps most underused is the actress who plays Jin-suk, Jeong-suk’s cousin. Her relationship with Sang-taek could have been explored more, but the actress and her character is oddly missing from most of Acts Two and Three.
The film seems most concerned with the breakdown of friendship in the face of reality and separation. And here lies one of “Friend’s” weaknesses. Much of the movie’s Third Act focuses on the conflict between Dong-su and Jeong-suk, and this leaves Sang-taek and Jeong-ho as bystanders. As previously mentioned, the Jin-suk character should have had a greater hand in the proceedings, which would have made the Sang-taek character more involved. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste (or the fact that I’ve seen this particular Rise and Fall of the Gangster Life way too many times before) but I was more interested in how Sang-taek, the shy academic, would re-integrate himself into the life of the first girl he ever kissed.
Despite “Friend’s” familiar retread of gangster movie cliché, motifs, and dissertations on friendship and brotherhood and loyalty (all done to infinity by directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam, and others), the movie’s cinematography has to be its biggest asset. South Korea’s congested cities and schools have never looked better; everything from the sea of black school uniforms to the expansive skyline of South Korea at night is simply gorgeous. I look forward to the day when “Friend’s” cinematographer Ki-seok Hwang gets a crack at making a film of his own. The man has a great eye, and it would be interesting to see what kind of story he weaves with his imagery.
Kyung-Taek Kwak (director) / Kyung-Taek Kwak (screenplay)
CAST: Oh-seong Yu …. Lee Jeong-suk
Dong-Kun Jang …. Han Dong-su