Regarded by many as one of the first classics to come out of the Korean new wave, ‘Friend’ has proven itself to stand the tests of time much more so than many of its contemporaries made around the same period. At one point it was the highest grossing Korean movie of all time, and deservedly won a bunch of awards at various film festivals and ceremonies.
Telling the story of four friends spanning from their days in school together, to their journey into adulthood during the 1970’s, the characters are played by Yoo Oh-seong (‘Attack the Gas Station / 주유소 습격사건’, ‘Champ / 챔프’), Jang Dong-gun (‘The Warrior’s Way / 워리어스 웨이’, ‘Taegukgi / 태극기 휘날리며’), Seo Tae-hwa (‘Public Enemy / 공공의 적’, ‘A Better Tomorrow / 무적자’), & Jeong Woon-taek (‘My Boss, My Hero / 두사부일체’, ‘City of Damnation / 유감스러운 도시’).
‘Friend’ immediately sets itself aside from most Korean movies, not only from around the time it was made, but even now, by having its story unfold on the streets of Busan rather than in the bustling metropolis of Seoul. This alone gives the movie a look and feel that’s unique amongst most Korean cinematic output, and is complimented by the actors using Busan’s own heavily accented dialect. The only other movies I can recall to have been set in the seaside town are ‘A Better Tomorrow /무적자’ and ‘Bloody Ties /사생결단’, although undoubtedly there’s more.
Director and screenwriter Kwak Kyung-taek has stated before that the movie is semi-autobiographical, and perhaps due to this fact it’s easy to feel the passion behind the story telling. Indeed if anything, Kyung-taek has sadly failed to live up to the promise of ‘Friend’ in subsequent movies, churning out largely forgettable action thrillers such as ‘Typhoon / 태풍’ and ‘Eye for an Eye /눈에는 눈 이에는 이’. So it was hardly surprising when, in 2009, he returned to the characters of ‘Friend’ for the K-drama ‘Friend – Our Story /친구, 우리들의 전설’, and indeed even as I write this review, production is underway on the movie ‘Friend 2 /친구 2’, which will see Yoo Oh-seong reprising his role from the first. Weather it will live up to the standard set by the original though remains to be seen.
As the movie starts we see the four friends, played by child actors, running around the narrow streets chasing after a pest control truck billowing out fumes. The bond of closeness between them is already established, and time soon progresses so that they’re in high school and still as close as ever. However social backgrounds begin to threaten what they’ve always taken for granted, with Oh-seong’s father being a well known gangster, and Dong-gun also finding himself being drawn into gang life. By the time they’re old enough to go to college, it’s only Tae-hwa and Woon-taek who stick it out, with Oh-seong and Dong-gun dropping out.
From the start events are narrated at intervals by the character of Woon-taek, who narrates as clearly an
older version of himself looking back at years gone by. The narration not only serves to move the story along though, it also allows us to feel the emotions of somebody looking back at a time that has passed, and perhaps the regrets that come with it. By the time the movie has reached its half way point, Oh-seong & Dong-gun are heading down a much darker path than that of Tae-hwa and Woon-taek, who remain focused on their academic achievements.
Inevitably, Oh-seong & Dong-gun’s worlds get increasingly violent, and this violence is portrayed in a brutally realistic way, while still maintaining an edge of adrenalin fuelled excitement. When Tae-hwa takes interest in a girl who's supposedly taken for by a rival from another school, which results in him getting jumped in the toilet, the four come together to take on what essentially amounts to the entire school population. It’s a scene which is filled with a kinetic kind of beauty, as they fend off hordes and hordes of frenzied students on a staircase using anything they can get their hands on. It’s scenes like this which Korean action cinema has become know for, a frenzied scrappy quality which can be seen in the likes of the hammer scene in ‘Old Boy /올드보이’, to the countless gang brawls of ‘A Dirty Carnival / 비열한 거리’.
As much as the violence threatens to distance them from each other, it’s scenes like this that also bring them together again, showing Kyung-taek’s skill at using violence not only for visceral thrills, but also to move the plot forward and build the character’s relationships with each other. As time moves on the friends go separate ways but continue to drift in and out of each others lives, each time encountering each other at a different stage of life. When things transpire which lead to Oh-seong & Dong-gun working for rival gangs in the same area, it’s then when the bonds of friendship are really put to the test. Tae-hwa and Woon-teak are left to observe helplessly, and can only question if they’ll ever be able to spend time together again as they once did, and if you haven’t seen ‘Friend’ yet, the answer is one that is certainly worth waiting for.