Director Kwak Gyeong-taek's semi-autobiographical tale beautifully opens in 1976, establishing four children: best friends who each have varying life attitudes, which will test their relationships and shape their destinies. Sang-taek (Seo Tae-hwa) is the narrator of the piece: the most outwardly intelligent of the four and whose point of view guides us through the picture. Han Dong-su (Yoo Oh-sung) is an Undertaker's son and not very good at keeping on the right side of the law; Lee Jeong-suk (Jang Dong-gun) is a gangster's son whose future is already pre-determined, and lastly there’s Jeong-ho (Jung Wun-taek) - Dong-su’s closet friend, who remains by his side offering affection and bountiful humour. But life’s path forces them to eventually separate, until seventeen years pass and they’re re-united by fate. Unfortunately, Dong-su and Jeong-suk are now on opposite tracks; caught up in a gang war, the two formerly inseparable friends are now the heads of rival factions. Now they face the ultimate test, which will determine just how far their loyalty has come.
Friend may not be an entirely original film, but Kwak Gyeong-taek‘s third and most prominent feature to date tries to bring with it far more self-concerning themes which examine the true bonds of friendship, rather than settle squarely on the usual rivals at loggerheads plot, thus becoming more of a deeply personal and at times profound feature. From the opening of the film we watch as the four leads grow from being curious children to accepting the kind of life perhaps far removed from their once innocent dreams. The social climate in which these men have grown up in is depicted with a certain amount of realism and channels the usual sentiments of love and honour as seen through the rise and fall of relationships struck by unavoidable adversity. And while that works so very well for the film’s first half, delivering copious amounts of detail with regards to character’s histories - a rare thing in itself - it does nonetheless bare the inevitable hallmarks of a dozen other gangster flicks, which can only end in one way. As such Friend is something of a mixed bag, telling its story comfortably with grit and determination, but failing to offer any real surprises within the somewhat predictable narrative. And most of that is of course down to the signposted individuals, who despite having diverse personalities and a real sense of background, pretty much have their fates stamped on their foreheads from the get-go.
It’s therefore difficult to ascertain how much dramatic license the director has taken with his own personal inspiration, and so connecting on a fully sympathetic level is a difficult task; personally speaking no amount of great acting and plot details make me care a great deal for half the characters involved, because there is an awful lot of clichéd material here. Clearly Kwak Gyeong-taek’s undivided focus is on the boys themselves, and less on the characters who flit in and out of their lives, who ideally should bare some sort of dramatic impact. It becomes problematic once the lead player’s lives are intertwined once more and the director throws too many inconveniences our way: falling in love, marrying, getting into lots of bloody fights - and there’s just not nearly enough time to evenly distribute these apparent real-life happenings over the course of two hours. Moreover, the longer events take to unfold the more the director actually begins to negate the roles of Sang-taek, our key narrator, and Jeong-ho, who becomes little more than light comic relief (as is often the case in most of the actor’s films). Friend simply feels just that little bit unfocused in the end, and one wonders had it been developed for television then perhaps the director’s intentions would have been far better realised on screen.
Still, there’s no denying how wonderful his picture looks as it serves up a wealth of pretty imagery and beautiful compositions. This is a film perhaps based more on nostalgia, and for that Kwak seems to blissfully recreate his childhood days during the opening act, filling the screen will small nuances; subtle sights and sounds that hark back to lost summer days and wistful yearning. We can truly feel the director’s personal attachment to the material, and a lot of credit for this goes to his cinematographer Hwang Ki-seok, whose consistency in depicting twenty years worth of social change in South Korea breathes some fresh life into a genre ordinarily pre-occupied with being confined to basic surroundings. Here we have a rich, albeit short history of events, which offer a nice amount of climate differences, from rural settings to the dirtier suburban hideaways of an ever changing Seoul. But it’s when the director tries to establish the closeness of his characters with the film’s rousing soundtrack that it tends to offer up its most memorable moments: Robert Palmer’s superbly executed “Bad Case of Loving You”, for example, fuels and extremely energetic sequence, of which there are far too few between the more contemplative aspects of the story.
Undoubtedly one of Third Window Films’ finest transfers to date, certainly up there with PTU, Friend is presented from a PAL source with 1.85:1 anamorphic enhancement. There’s very little to complain about overall, as aside from a spot of aliasing this looks about as good as it can on the format. Contrast is a tad high on occasion but I believe much of this is down to Kwak Gyeong-taek's stylistic choices in capturing a nostalgic glow with blown out skies and diffusion filtering. Detail is good throughout and black levels are consistent, while the general tone of the palette is well accommodated, again offering an assortment of saturation which nicely captures the period settings.
In terms of sound we’re also looking at a solid offering. We’re given choices of Stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital, and it’s the latter which really shines, particularly whenever the soundtrack is left to its own devices. There’s some nice base and directionality which makes full use of Choi Man-sik and Choi Sun-shik’s score, while the songs come across very lively. Dialogue is equally well handled, free from distortions or drop-outs and remains at a pleasant audible level mainly across the central speakers.
Optional English subtitles are included, and these are also good, exhibiting just a couple of grammatical errors.
In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer and some promotional material for other Third Window releases, we have a Making Of feature which runs for approximately 36 minutes. It’s rather typical of most behind the scenes footage we see on Korean DVD releases, being that it mainly concentrates on key scenes and shows how certain shots are achieved.. There’s plenty of discussion between director and cast though, and we see Kwak Gyeong-taek being quite firm when directing. Moreover we see just how hands on the overall direction was, with even Jung Wun-taek taking to alcohol so he could really get into his Karaoke scene. Somewhat different though is with Gyeong-taek’s opening commentary to each scene being dissected, which makes for a few interesting facts as he talks about controversial decisions amongst others. There is also the occasional commentary from actor Jang Dong-gun, who joins the director as we’re presented with a small window in the lower half of the screen. English subtitles accompany.
Friend was a resounding success at the Seoul box-office in 2001, and it’s not really a surprise, what with a great cast who do wonders with their material. But it’s hard to shake the fact that despite the film containing real life situations and sincere depictions of growing up and growing apart, we’ve seen it all before. This carries common themes throughout, though it’s commendable that the director does try his best to actually focus on characterisation over the outcome of events. Humour, some sadness, and brutal imagery contribute toward a decent drama, and yet there’s an underlying feeling that it could have been just that little bit more special.
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