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Original Title:

South Korea 2001

Drama, Crime

Kwak Kyung-Taek

Yu Oh-seong
Jang Dong-kun
Seo Tae-hwa
Jeong Un-taek
Kim Bo-kyeong
Ju Hyeon
Gi Ju-bong
Yun Chang
Kang Shin-il
Lee Jae-yong
Kim Jeong-tae
Jeong Ho-bin
Kim Kwang-gyoo

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Story: Jeong-suk (Yu Oh-seong) is the son of a local gangster boss and the head of a school gang. His right hand is his long-term friend Dong-su (Jang Dong-kun). Together with class clown Jeong-ho (Jeong Un-taek) and quiet Sang-taek (Seo Tae-hwa) the four form a clique, that is hold together by a strong bond of friendship since childhood days. However, after Jeong-suk and Dong-su save their friend Sang-taek from a group of students who want to beat him up, the two are expelled from school. Sang-taek and Jeong-ho finish school, while the other two are more and more pushed into the ranks of the local mafia.
Years later, Sang-taek visits his two friends and has to find out that the two are working in two different, rivalling gangster organisations. Jeong-suk can acquire a high rank in his organisation, while Dong-su is also climbing the rank ladder with vicious determination. Sang-taek and Jeong-suk are still on good terms and keep up their friendship, but between the other two friends things don't look that cheerful. Furthermore, a bloody gang war breaks loose, which will show how strong the friendship between Jeong-suk and Dong-su still is...

Review: "Friend" is a movie that's not only praised by critics, but which could also achieve a most remarkable commercial success. The film didn't just get almost twice as much people into cinema than "My Sassy Girl", which came out the same year, but could even crack the box office record of such movies like "JSA" or "Swiri". Anyway, I have to out myself here. "Friend" may be a really good movie, but it is by far the masterpiece that some call it. Reasons are aplenty to support my opinion. First, the film's plot is everything but original. Unfortunately, the fact that director Kwak Kyung-Taek made his movie based on true events and his own personal experience/past (the director is embodied by Sang-taek in the movie), can't make the plot more inventive either. Even though the story admittedly gets an interesting claim to reality because of this, this doesn't change the fact that "Friend" has to deal with being compared to several Hong Kong movies of the same kind. Of which many are simply better than this one...

If you are a fan of Hong Kong cinema, than that is most likely because you have an affinity for triad- and gangster stories. These stories always revolve around loyalty, friendship, brotherhood and the obligations you have to meet for the gangster organisation you work for. How far will you go? How important is the word friendship for you and how far on top of your priority list can it be found? All these questions have been answered before or were dealt with in many movies, recent ones being from Johnny To ("Election", "Exiled"), who keeps the genre alive almost on his own. So what exactly does "Friend" deliver that can be called inventive or new? Sadly not much. And that's exactly one of the major points of my critique.
"Friend" does a good job in presenting itself more as a drama than anything else, it also adds to the film's quality that the story spans a few decades. Nonetheless, here we also get to realize one of the most apparent problems of "Friend". Because of the almost epic depiction of the plot, there is no real red thread that runs through the story, except maybe the motif of friendship between the four guys, so that it becomes really difficult for the audience to weave an emotional bond to the protagonists. Therefore, it's actually inevitable that the movie can't touch us nearly as much or have that much of an emotional impact as it strives to have.

However, I actually don't want to waste more lines with bringing out the movie's flaws, as you could be made to believe that "Friend" is a bad movie, which really isn't the case. Yet, it seems necessary to point out the film's problems in order to defy the critics with giving arguments why their believe in "Friend" being a milestone of cinema is simply unjustified. Apart from the already mentioned reasons I also have to point out that the film gets a bit too melodramatic towards the end.
But let's get to the strengths of "Friend" which more than anything else is to be found in the actors. Yu Oh-seong ("Attack the Gas Station") is the actual star of the film, even though it is especially difficult to sympathize with him at first. As a drug addict who mistreats his girlfriend and as a gangster who shows an iron fist when his subordinates make any mistake, he surely doesn't win over any fans, but the way he holds his friendship with the other three in high regard and never puts them behind anything else, is admirable and make us somewhat like this man despite his bad character traits. Without a doubt this is mainly the effort of the multi-layered portrayal by Yu Oh-seong.

The other actors can also be quite convinving, even though they all remain a bit shallow. Especially when it comes to Sang-taek and Jeong-ho we would have liked to see some more character development. Jang Dong-keon ("Nowhere to Hide") on the other hand can deliver a surprisingly stunning performance. His character has the most obvious potential to be a villian (which he actually is in a way), and yet he is also still holding on to his memories from childhood days when he could enjoy the pleasures of this world without any worries on his mind. Therefore, the two gangsters are somewhat tragical and most of all very three-dimensional in their depiction. Sadly, this can't be said about the other two. Director Kwak Kyung-Taek often tries to make Sang-taek a character the viewer is supposed to relate to, but it doesn't work out nearly as good as it might have been intended.
Nevertheless, where "Friend" can score is when it comes to camera work, which is quite innovative at times and also serves us with some nice pictures at times, whereas the movie gets more and more grittier and dark as it progresses. Aside from brawls that are captured with a shaky camera, a race through the streets of Busan and cinematographically pleasing pictures, there is also a knife-stabbing scene in a rainy street that stands out as a nice work of filmmaking.

"Friend" has some memorable moments. At the end one of the protagonists is dying, while his murderer is still stabbing him another dozen times, so that he informs the knifer that he can stop as he is already lethally wounded. This scene gives the movie some slightly funny-pointed note, whereas it also underlines the tragedy in a remarkable fashion. Moreover, Kwak shows us on several ocassions what true friendship means. Even when Sang-taek is offending his friend Jeong-suk in front of all the mafia-members, Jeong-suk would never think of hurting his friend. On the contrary, when Sang-taek apologizes for his behavior, he simply says that friends have nothing to be sorry about. This is maybe one of the most beautiful definitions of "friendship"...
Towards the end "Friend" gets more brutal with every minute, especially when there is excessive use of knives. The message of "Friend", however, is conveyed in a clear manner thanks to some well-done melodramatic moments. And still you can't fight the feeling that you have seen it all before. Everyone who has seen some Hong Kong triad movies will have to agree. Nevertheless, "Friend" is an important addition to the genre for Korea, which shouldn't be missed by those interested in dramas or the crime genre.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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