All the promise shown by writer-director Shin Dong-il in his feature bow “Host & Guest” (2005), comes to rich fruition in his sophomore outing, “My Friend & His Wife.” Superbly honed at every level, with dialogue, performances and direction meshing in a seamless, apparently effortless flow, this observational drama about three friends whose lives and relationships are changed by a shocking accident should put Shin’s name on the international map. Festivals should scramble for this quality item and, with the right critical support, some niche business looks likely in upscale venues.
On the basis of his two features, Shin has shown the rare talent of taking issue-driven material and turning it into character-driven entertainment. “Host & Guest” spliced together the odd couple of an ornery skeptic and young evangelist, and watched a mutual respect grow through a series of meetings and conversation pieces. “Friend” centers on the changing chemistry between two best friends and the wife of one of them, as they’re forced to confront their differences following a personal tragedy.
Ye-jun (Jang Hyeon-seong) and Jae-mun (Park Heui-sun) have been friends since doing military service, though they’ve since developed into polar opposites. Onetime left-wing activist Ye-jun has become an ambitious foreign-exchange trader with a taste for sharp suits, while Jae-mun has settled for a simpler life as a chef. Latter has married hairdresser Ji-suk (Hong So-heui), and the couple plan to move to the U.S. so she can have her baby there.
Ji-suk can’t understand her husband’s affinity for the emotionally remote Ye-jun, especially when her husband skips their marital bed one night to take care of his drunken friend. But she doesn’t make a big issue of it. When their move Stateside collapses, the couple prepare for their child’s birth.
As Jae-mun and Ji-suk adjust to family life — in a neatly drawn section that starts with their marriage under stress and ends with parents and baby blissfully sharing a bath together — Ye-jun rises through the ranks at his foreign exchange company and temporarily loses touch with the couple. When Ji-suk takes a five-day trip to Paris to attend a hairdressing convention, she leaves Jae-mun alone to take care of their baby.
Pic’s first half-hour lays out a rich web of character with the simplest devices: shortish dialogue scenes that dip into their lives at crucial points, and a directorial style in which the camera never draws attention to itself but is always well composed. Effect is similar to the early films — not the later, more meet-cute ones — of French helmer Eric Rohmer, especially “My Night With Maud,” where dialogue-driven material is lightened by visual finesse and perfs that seem absolutely natural within a slightly formal framework.
Soon after Ji-suk has left, Ye-jun, who’s been verbally lambasted at dinner by his less ambitious colleagues, visits Jae-mun’s apartment on a whim. The two men re-establish their friendship and get merrily drunk. But while Jae-mun is parking Ye-jun’s car, a stupid accident involving the former’s baby completely changes the lives of all three protags.
That’s only the first half of a drama that goes in unexpected directions and stretches over several years, as Ji-suk morphs into a successful businesswoman, Ye-jun finally declares his unspoken love for her, and Jae-mun takes the rap for his friend’s tragic error. Climax, with Ye-jun literally facing the fires of hell, is immensely powerful. Though it’s less than two hours long, pic seems to have traversed a whole universe of moral and ethical dilemmas.
Casting is aces. Though hardly a major star, Jang, so good in movies like “Man Watching Video” and “Love Is a Crazy Thing,” is the best-known of the three leads and dominates the movie as the distanced, self-absorbed yuppie who conceals a deep well of spiritual emptiness behind his smart front. Park is fine as the sincere, highly ethical Jae-mun, but it’s Hong’s perf that really grows in the second half. Actress’ amazing eyes can register happiness, disappointment and a terrifying emotional vacuum (as when she speaks of a spell in the U.S.) within the same scene.
Tech package is immaculate, with Kim Seok-gu’s lensing making use of full but not overstated colors and costumes underlining characters at every stage. One scene outside a jail may puzzle foreign auds, which shows (as in “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”) the traditional Korean practice of relatives offering white tofu to ex-cons. This means of “cleansing” their souls is also given a neat twist in Shin’s endlessly alert script.