Four childhood buddies find their bonds tested by the fires of adult criminality in “Friend,” a powerful gangster drama in which emotions and relationships take precedence over straight action. Already a colossal B.O. hit in its native South Korea, this carefully sculpted third feature by writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek, whose well-observed debut, “Bath House: 3PM Paradise,” did the rounds some three to four years ago, has definite fest appeal and some specialized distribution potential. Though the theme is nothing new to Western auds, its packaging and exposition (via a strong cast) always holds the attention.
Released on March 31, the movie has already set a record in South Korea, breaking through the 6 million admissions barrier set by “Shiri” and “Joint Security Area” and still riding high in the charts. In its first nine days alone, pic clocked a boffo 2 million admissions.
The success is all the more surprising as the movie has none of the action-thriller elements of “Shiri” nor the hot-button political drama of “JSA” (set in the country’s DMZ with North Korea). But with its two charismatic male leads, and socially grounded yarn spread across 20 years of recent South Korean history, it has clearly touched an emotional chord among the country’s huge moviegoing demographic of under-30 women. In the West, its appeal will mainly be as a taut character drama with explosive, Leone-esque sequences of gang violence.
Opening reel, set during the conservative, repressive era under President Park, introduces the friends as kids in 1976, when diversions like watching Western porno on an imported VCR broke through conventions in their small town. From the opening v.o. narration by Sang-taek (Seo Tae-hwa), and the dedication to “my friends and their families,” pic clearly draws on real-life memories by helmer Kwak, who was himself born in the southern port town of Pusan, where his earlier “Bath House” and most of “Friend” is set.
By 1981, the kids are at high school and their personalities are already defined. Leading the group is hatchet-faced Jeong-suk (Yu Oh-seong), the short-fused son of a local gangster; his sidekick is tautly-strung Dong-su (Jang Dong-keon), son of a mortician. Also making up the group are the gentler Sang-taek and nerdy Jeong-ho (Jeong Un-taek). Jeong-suk and Dong-su are already into juvenile gang life, graphically shown in a mass brawl in a movie theater when another gang unexpectedly tries to take revenge.
Three years later, Jeong-suk has become a junkie and Dong-su is spending time in jail when the other two, now at college, visit the former. When Dong-su gets out, however, he joins another gang rather than hook up with Jeong-suk; thereon, the two old friends, briefly reunited when Dong-su’s father helps in the funeral of Jeong-suk’s dad, set out on individual criminal careers that find them mortally opposed a decade later.
As the tinderbox Jeong-suk, whose gangster path was seemingly mapped out for him at an early age, Yu dominates the early going, bringing the same natural intensity to the part as he’s demonstrated in earlier pics like “The Spy” and “Attack the Gas Station!” From the midpoint on, however, he’s first matched and then gradually overtaken by Jang, a charismatic screen presence who brings a gleaming ambition and madness to the character of Dong-su, driven by the need to prove himself better than his old friend.
Visually, the movie is very self-aware, with the whole story bathed in an ochrish wash that becomes weaker as the story enters the ’90s. At other times, notably in scenes of graphic violence, Kwak overdoes techniques like shuttered slo-mo, but late-on sequences of gangster carnage still pack a punch in tandem with the sparsely used, melancholy score. With its market alleyways, bleak vistas and fishing industries, Pusan forms a refreshing change to the normal Seoul locations for this kind of movie.