Friend | aka Chingoo (2001) Review

"Friend" Korean Theatrical Poster

"Friend" Korean Theatrical Poster

Director: Kwak Kyung-Taek
Writer: Kwak Kyung-Taek
Producer: Myeong-Hong Seok
Cast: Yoo Oh-Sung, Chang Dong-Gun, Suh Tae-Hwa, Jung Woon-Taek, Kim Bo-Kyung, Joo-Hyun, Gi Joo-Bong
Running Time: 113 min

By Dragon Ma

I’ve always wondered about what it means to be a true friend, a brother even. In this film, the director paints a portrait of four friends who thought they would remain friends forever.

The plot is mainly the story of four young boys who grow up very differently. Song-Taek is the academic and the one most likely to succeed, Joong-so is the clown( strangely enough, he reminds me of Mike Myers), Joong-Suk, is the son of a gangster and Joong-Sun is the son of an undertaker. As these four kids grow up together and then grow into men, Joong-Suk and Joong-Sun drift towards crime and end up being gangsters while the other two pursue a less criminal lifestyle; but they still remain friends, that is, until events unfold that pit Joong-Suk and Joong-Sun against each other.

I’ll leave it there but suffice to say it’s a thoroughly emotional film, not in a John Woo melodramatic kind of way where there’s a lot of homosexual subtext, and I credit the actors for doing such a phenomenal job in this film. Yoo-Oh Sung, Jang Dong-Un, Seo Tae-Hwa and Joong Un-Taek all come across so strongly and it really hurts to see things go bad. Yoo-Oh Sung gives a truly great performance, although I thought Jang Don-Un eclipsed him only slightly. The look of this film is excellent and there are some truly beautiful shots – but it’s just part of a whole and by the end, you’re exhausted; you’ve watched these four guys grow up, make mistakes and in it’s conclusion, I wish they could have remain friends just like they originally intended.

Dragon Ma’s Rating: 10/10

By Alexander

This site once had the quote “So you wanna be a gangsta?” on the main page, emblazoned across a picture of Michael Wong and Sooky Chan, guns aloft, from the crime drama The Blood Rules. A more apt image for this quote, however, would be the box art from the compelling Korean coming-of-age tale Friend. The auburn tinted picture of the four brooding young men, all sullen and garbed in the black uniforms of their high school seems to actually invite the viewer to join their tight knit group, to infiltrate the bond of their lifelong friendship, a friendship ultimately turned upside down by the brutal realities of organized crime.

While Friend isn’t the best Korean film I’ve seen to date (JSA left me feeling more satisfied), it is one of the most compelling films to emerge from Asian cinema in the past few years (further evidence that Korea is producing the most exciting films on the continent). While not wholly original (Once Upon a Time in America and The Godfather covered much of the same territory years prior), Friend managed to completely reel me in with its stunning performances by Jang Dong-geon (Dong-su) and Yoo Oh-sung (Jun-seok). They portray the two tragic leads who succumb to the violent world of organized crime despite the pleas of their “straight” friends Jung-ho and Sang-taek. Yoo Oh-sung is tailor made for the role of gang boss Jun-seok. I was absolutely enthralled by his performance as the violent yet loyal hood with his gaunt face, near-constant snarl and the ever-present wisp of cigarette smoke.

Friend gets off to a promising start. The best visuals in the film occur within the first few minutes of the movie as it chronicles the disparate childhoods of four friends growing up in Korea in the ’70s. The children bicker, play Pong, watch lurid porn on the group’s sole VCR, and worship Bruce Lee. They flirt, pick fights with playground bullies and generally behave like all carefree teenagers do. Their future involvement in organized crime is only hinted at, but these subtle hints foreshadow the chaos that eventually erupts when two of the boys choose to embark on careers as gangsters.

My biggest complaint about Friend is the writer’s attempt to cram these four boy’s lives into a 113 minute film. It’s tough to genuinely care about any one of these young men when they are splitting screen time with three other characters. Years pass without any mention of their whereabouts, which are usually only vaguely hinted at when they return to the screen. Because Joon-suk gets the most screen time and brings the most intensity to his role, he’s by far the most memorable and compelling of the boys. Likewise, some plot points are underdeveloped and should have been fleshed out. Joon-suk’s girlfriend, for instance, has major relevance early in the film, but all but disappears until the final act. An additional twenty minutes would have resulted in a still bearable 133 minute running time and would have better allowed writer Kwak Kyung-taek to tell his story.

Regardless, Friend is highly recommended.

Alexander’s Rating: 8/10

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