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Three Friends

Despite the imprimatur of megacorp Samsung, now dabbling in pic production and distribution, "Three Friends" is an offbeat, low-budget debut for an iconoclastic female director. Episodic coming-of-age drama has plenty of insights into contempo Korean society, but is probably too austere and disjointed to find many offshore pals. As title suggests, pic centers on a trio of buddies, although these particular lads, lost in a bland suburb of Seoul and just out of high school, are thrown together more by outsider status than by any specific affinities. Tacit leader Kim (Kim Hyun-Sung) is a talented cartoonist, but his attempts to enter contests and the workaday world end in acrimony and charges of plagiarism. The wan, effeminate Cho (Lee Jang-Won) just wants to work in his mother's beauty parlor, but is thwarted by the bullying of his mindlessly macho dad --- an attitude reflected by various neighborhood thugs.

With:
With: Kim Hyun-Sung, Lee Jang-Won, Jung Hee-Suk.

Trailing behind is the obese, somewhat slow-witted Kong (Jung Hee-Suk), who dreams only of girls and food (his overstuffed family runs a restaurant, and his fitful attempts at dieting are met with derisive laughter). Kong’s lame, low-pay jobs — at a coffee bar, a spit-and-polish gas station and, finally, at a tacky video parlor — provide much of the film’s bittersweet humor.

For a while, the tale ambles along formlessly, in “Rumblefish” fashion, but our melancholy misfits have a very real sword hanging over their heads: compulsory military service. How they deal with the draft gives a painful edge to the proceedings, and there are several twists near the finish, underlining a dark, if rather resigned, view of modern Korean culture, one built on violence, materialism and a destructively narrow concept of masculinity (all of which makes the Samsung connection a fairly surprising one).

Young helmer Yim Soon-Rye earned a master’s degree in film studies in Paris, and she reveals a fondness for the ennui-ridden style of the French neorealists. The social and political references, however, are purely local, and these may be lost on outsiders, even in sympathetic fest settings.

Pic also turns a bit repetitive toward the end, and scenes have such a similar rhythm and trajectory — with main characters being misunderstood or humiliated in some way — that the effect is numbing at times. Still, the individual scenes are well acted, and Australian lenser Peter Gray always finds a fresh angle on mundane settings. An all-guitar score is another plus, lending some simple distinction to the slightly obscure “Friends.”

Three Friends

South Korean

Production: A Samsung Entertainment Group (Seoul) production. Produced by Yim Soon-Rye, Kin Eun-Young. Directed, written by Yim Soon-Rye.

Crew: Camera (color), Peter Gray; editor, Lee Don-Hee; music, Lee Byung Woo. Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival, Oct. 17, 1996. (Also in Berlin fest --- Forum.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With: With: Kim Hyun-Sung, Lee Jang-Won, Jung Hee-Suk.

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