Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Seventies Seoul. Four friends in the haze of a perpetual summer, barely troubled by the backdrop of simmering tension between North and South Korea, and much more interested in new VCR players, comics and illicit porn films. Friend follows the four schoolboys from these childhood scenes - reminiscent of Stand By Me or Sleepers - through already troubled teenage years, to their twenties, when two of them have been drawn almost inevitably into the Korean underworld.

Sang-taek (Seo Tae-hwa), who narrates on and off throughout the film, is cut out to be a straight-laced college boy, like Jeong-ho (Jeong Un-Taek). Jeong-suk (Yu Oh-seong) has grown up with gangster culture, playing the tough guy since childhood, and is unable to fight what seems like his destiny. Dong-su (Jang Dong-kung) has spent his childhood under the black cloud of his father's job as an undertaker, and turns to the gangs to shake off his ingrained sense of humiliation. The four are bound by their childhood together, but as they get older their friendship is put under pressure by their divergent lifestyles.

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Sang-taek's occasional narration seems superfluous, especially since beyond the first half of the film, the focus has shifted from him to the volatile but sometimes mature and sympathetic Jeong-suk. Jeong-suk stubbornly carries what he perceives to be his fate like a heavy rock, sometimes angrily, sometimes philosophically, but never begrudging the success of his white-collar friends Sang-taek and Jeong-ho. This is in contrast with the tormented Dong-su, who, poisoned by his own envy and insecurity is a time-bomb ticking.

The main roles are well cast, with Jeong-suk compelling as he see-saws between hopeless waster and slick made man, and Dong-su pitiable and detestable in equal parts for his lack of self-awareness. The two 'good guys', though they are gradually marginalised, exude a convincing sincerity, and my heart sank with Dong-su's father as his son turned his back on him.

But director Kwak is shooting beyond his range, and doesn't manage the sheer scale of the film - the big timespan, the raft of characters - with the skill of someone like Martin Scorsese, whose films Friend inevitably brings to mind. Some biting, black humour in a Goodfellas vein might have done something to make the atmosphere of violence and gloom less average and more engaging. Instead Friend drags on, fuelled by navel-gazing discussions of the meaning of friendship and loyalty - which Sang-taek rightly tells Jeong-suk off for: "You sound like some guru. What's a gangster doing talking like a philosopher. You're nothing but a hoodlum." Quite. If Kwak had just followed his character's advice, and not gone down the road of sentimentalism, Friend might have been a film to get excited about.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2009
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The loyalty of four childhood friends is tested when two are drawn into the Seoul underworld.
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Director: Kwak Kyung-Taek

Writer: Kwak Kyung-Taek

Starring: Jang Dong-Gun, Yoo Oh-Seung, Suh Tae-Hwa, Jeong Un-taek

Year: 2001

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: South Korea,


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