AKA: Friend: The Great Legacy
Director: Kwak Kyung-Taek
Writer: Kwak Kyung-Taek
Cast: Yoo Oh-Sung, Kim Woo-Bin, Joo Jin-Mo, Jung Ho-Bin, Lee Cheol-Min, Jang Young-Nam, Lee Joon-Hyuk, Gi Ju-Bong, Bae Sung-Jong, Ji Seung-Hyun, Joo Suk-Tae
Running Time: 124 min.
By Kyle Warner
Kwak Kyung-taek’s 2001 gangster drama Friend is widely considered to be a modern classic in South Korean cinema. I like the movie but you could probably say that I’m not one of Friend’s biggest fans. I rewatched it recently before sitting down to watch the sequel (something I strongly recommend to anyone considering Friend 2). Friend is a good movie. I do think it’s a bit slow and heavy-handed, though, and its disjointed storyline of chapters in a trio of friend’s lives does make it easy for a viewer to check out from time-to-time. The one major thing that struck me about 2001’s Friend was how authentic it felt. Told primarily from the POV of a young man who’s watching his two friends turn to a life of crime, Friend feels like the true account of the downfall of two promising young men.
Friend 2 is made up of very different thematic substance from its predecessor. This is a gangster movie, not a coming-of-age tale or a story about lost innocence. From the beginning, this film is told from the POV of criminals and killers. 95% of Friend 2’s characters exist on the wrong side of the law. It’s not nearly as authentic and honest as the original film, but in focusing on just being a crime movie I think it’s a more cohesive film overall. Not saying it’s a better film! Just saying that, by trying to do less, the film’s storyline feels more polished.
As I talk a bit about this film’s storyline, I’m bound to drop some spoilers for the first film. So, if you’re unfamiliar with the original Friend, I suggest you wait until after you’ve seen that film before you read the review for the sequel.
Taking place 17 years after the original film (actually filmed 12 years later), Friend 2 finds Joon-seok (Yu Oh-seong) in the final year of his prison term for ordering the hit on his friend Dong-soo. It’s in prison that he meets Sung-hoon, the rebellious son of a former flame. Throughout his childhood, Sung-hoon (Kim Woo-bin) grew up looking for a father figure in the absence of his real dad, becoming a violent street gangster with a grudge against authority in the process. When Sung-hoon goes to prison for attacking some of Joon-seok’s gang, the older gangster is put in a difficult situation when his former flame asks him to look after Sung-hoon on the inside. So begins a strained teacher/student relationship between an old-school hood with a history of killing his friends and a young punk who’s at war with the world.
Once out of prison, Joon-seok seeks to reclaim his spot near the top of his gang’s hierarchy, but he finds that relentlessly ambitious Eun-ki (Jung Ho-bin) has risen in the ranks and is trying to push both Joon-seok and the gang’s old president out of power. When Sung-hoon is finally released from prison, Joon-seok takes the kid under his wing and plans to take over the city’s criminal empire.
Like the original film, Friend 2 is full of violent machinations but it’s held together by some strong characters. Yu Oh-seong doesn’t get as much variety to play with in the older, more world-weary Joon-seok. Despite being the series’ most violent and ruthless individual, the original Friend also showed Joon-seok to be the most likable. Here he’s sterner, with a constantly furrowed brow that’s bound to give the actor a headache. The violent youth Sung-hoon played by Kim Woo-bin gets more room to emote and show off. Though essentially a character driven by rage in almost every scene, one can at least sense something deeper hidden beneath the surface.
The original film was all about the childhood friendship of boys who grew into young men and lost their way. Friend 2 tries to squeeze in a subplot involving a different trio of friends but it feels unnecessary. Years ago, Sung-hoon was one of three friends who hung out with girls, raced motorcycles, and got into mischief. A tragedy turned the trio into a duo and set the two surviving friends on radically different paths; Sung-hoon became a gangster and his buddy became a monk. The two clash into each other again and Friend 2 tries to recapture the same drama found in the first film’s similar sequences, but here the friendship is completely unnecessary to the story. One kid turned into a thug and one became a holy man—that’s it, that’s the end of that subplot, and having the two run into each other again and again changes nothing about either character.
In addition to giving Sung-hoon some background by looking to his childhood, the film also jumps back to the 60s and shows the rise of Joon-seok’s father in the criminal world. Again, some of this feels like unnecessary padding (or maybe an attempt to go for a Godfather Part II kind of vibe?), but the fact that it’s gangster drama at least helps these scenes mesh with the rest of the story.
The film is at its best when Joon-seok and Sung-hoon focus their sights on their nemesis Eun-ki. Nobody in the film can really be called a hero but Eun-ki is certainly the villain and I enjoyed how Jung Ho-bin played the part as a man who acts generous and caring but is secretly plotting murder if he doesn’t get his way. The gentleman criminal makes for a nice parallel with the more emotional Joon-seok and Sung-hoon.
Despite huge expectations from audiences, the sequel doesn’t have lofty ambitions and is more than happy to give some decent character development to a large cast and then brutalize those characters with pipes and knives. I guess you could say it’s something of a dumbed-down sequel. But I liked it. I watched both Friend and Friend 2 this week. I walked away from Friend admiring the young cast, the authenticity of the screenplay, and the director’s gritty vision of youths entering the criminal underworld. There’s less to admire about Friend 2 but it’s a perfectly fine gangster movie, directed with style and competently acted by an ensemble cast. If you enjoyed Friend, give the sequel a look.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10