One of the most successful blockbuster films in Korea last year, Friend (Chin-gu) follows the lives of four school-friends in Pusan, Korea from 1973 to 1993. The four boys they come from different backgrounds and life takes them in different directions over the period of the film. When they do meet up at different stages they find that they still retain a bond from childhood in spite of the changes in their lives in the intervening years.
Circumstances force two of the boys work into the world of crime. Joon-suk’s father is a gangster and this is the only world he knows and he will inevitably be drawn into the same life-style. His friend and No.2, Dong-su, is the son of an undertaker and desperately needs to rise up from his background. Ultimately, both friends find themselves on opposing sides of a violent underworld and bonds of friendship are stretched to the limit.
The story is obviously auto-biographical to some extent. There is a strong evocation of time and place and the characterisation of each of the friends is strong. Yoo Oh-sung is especially good as Joon-suk – born into a life of violence, his finely-nuanced performance helps his character rise above the cliché that this description usually entails.
There is some strong violence in the film and some particularly nasty stabbings, but the violence is not the point of the film but a part of the lives of the characters and it is dealt with appropiately. A mass riot at a cinema is a blood-pumping scene of powerful intensity, superbly choreographed and filmed. The cinematography by Hwang Ki-seok is superb throughout the film, imbuing the above scene with a powerful energy without letting the cleverness of the photography dominate the scene. Elsewhere, the director of photography’s strong sense of composition means there is something to marvel in even the simplest of talking-head shots.
The role of women is somewhat under-developed in the film and they remain firmly in the background. Jin-sook, a singer in a local pop-band, is the only female character of note, but her role is barely more than a sketch. Although the focus of the film is clearly on the four friends, their relationships with women could have helped round-out their characters the same way Jin-sook’s troubled marriage to Joon-suk sheds light on his character, although even this is left undeveloped.
The 1:85:1 anamorphic picture is sharp, perhaps a little harshly so around edges. Some stepping or jagged diagonals are often visible. There are only a few dust spots and the picture is a little dark with perhaps a little too much contrast – but overall the film still manages to look very good through the good lighting and strong colours used by the director of photography. Occasionally a slight grainy haze can be seen when the picture tracks, but apart from the jagged edges, there is nothing much to distract from the fine picture here.
The film comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix, but most of the sound throughout the film is pumped mainly through the centre speaker. Even the music score which includes tracks from the J Geils Band, Blondie and Robert Palmer is not widely separated across the front speakers. This might be an artistic choice to keep attention focussed on the picture itself, but a little more use of the surrounds wouldn’t have harmed the film much.
Chapter selection only gives us 9 chapters for the film. It isn’t particularly well-divided and could have been linked better to the different periods of the film. There is a short Synopsis of the film, similar to the description on the back of the DVD case which is a short summary of the premise of the film, containing no spoilers. The 2:42 minute Trailer is non-anamorphic in 1:85:1 and is a good showcase for what the film is about and its particular style. A short Music Video shows similar clips to those used in the trailer using one of the songs composed for the film. A Cast and Credits listing only lists the cast without any links to filmographies of the cast or film-crew.
Ultimately, the message of the film isn’t clear and the film is a little unsatisfying as a result. It’s a personal film for the director, one that relies on the mood and character of the time and place it depicts. Performances are very good, the film looks striking with some good set-pieces and a moving ending that will leave you with a lump in your throat, but it doesn’t have anything new to say about friendships or relationships or even the social background of the characters. It’s the story of four people who knew each other, whose lives took different turns and who remained friends nevertheless. The film is strong enough on this level alone but I think it could have been much more.