Pic fuels nostalgia binge

Kwak's 'Friend' triggers childhood redux

SEOUL — A Korean movie about four ill-fated friends has smashed local B.O. records, spawned a retro fashion trend and left a populace in search of lost pals.

“Friend,” directed by Kyoung-taek Kwak and produced and distributed by Korea Pictures, sold 6.5 million tickets in six weeks, grossing about $24 million through May 13, to rank as the all-time highest-grossing Korean film. It’s surpassed “Shiri,” which was released in 1999 and sold 5.78 million ducats.

Unlike “Shiri” and last year’s biggest hit “Joint Security Area,” which both dealt with the hot topic of North-South Korea relations, “Friend” centers on four buddies in the seaport of Pusan and examines their lives from childhood through their 20s, when two join rival gangs.

The movie is so popular among young and old alike it’s given birth to what is widely known as the “Friend syndrome.” This is manifested in folks peppering everyday conversation with lines from the film, adopting out-of-date crewcuts and wearing school uniforms like those worn by the film’s characters.

A number of ’70s- and ’80s-themed cafes have sprouted, and businesses are practicing so-called ” ‘Friend’ marketing,” using scenes and actors from the pic in ad campaigns.

In another social phenomenon sparked by the film, men in their 30s and 40s are scouting out old friends with whom they’ve lost touch with over the years. According to one Internet alumni company, Damoim, the number of new members signing onto its site with the express purpose of tracking down old friends doubled to 20,000 per month beginning April, when the movie preemed.

Some commentators believe the era depicted in the film has been its best selling point. “Usually Korean films target teenagers to those in their late 20s. By setting the story in 1970-80s, ‘Friend’ succeeded in attracting theatergoers in their 30s and 40s as well as the usual young crowd,” film critic Gina Yu says.

Indeed, stats show that 40% of the pic’s audiences are middle-aged men. (Film is rated 18-plus due to a few violent gang fights).

Others attribute “Friend’s” success to today’s gloomy social mood. Film critic Hee-moon Cho believes Koreans are seeing their everyday struggles reflected in the movie.

The two main characters in the pic are driven to take up careers in violence as a result of inadequate education and poverty.

It’s not just the local market that’s responding favorably. A sale of the pic — which is being shopped at Cannes — is being negotiated to a number of Japanese firms for $2.5 million, which would be a record for a Korean film for that territory. “Joint Security Area” fetched $2 million from Japan and “Shiri” $1.3 million.

And Korea Pictures is receiving offers for copyrights to novels and animation based on the pic from Japan, and is being bombarded with requests from Korean-American societies in the U.S. to have the movie screen in local theaters.

“In the end, it may be the ordinary topic that’s attracting so many people. After all, friendship is something that everyone can relate to, despite age or culture differences,” marketing manager Mi-choung Bang says.