This explosive crime drama follows four friends from their formative years in 1970s Korea until adulthood. Though each of the four came from different family backgrounds, they stuck together through the tough economic times of those years. However, as they mature into adults, the boys' lifelong friendship starts to break when members of the group turn to crime to make their living. Soon, this once close quartet has fallen into two rival factions, turning old friends into bitter enemies whole differences are so great, not even friendship can stand in the way.
I had owned the Megastar release of Friend for quite a few years when I was sent this version by Third Window Films. When I originally bought the film, I had heard quite a lot of high praise concerning it and that was good enough reason for me to spend my money. However, once it arrived I realised that it was more of an out and out drama than the films I preferred watching, so let it sit on my shelf for a bit figuring I'd be in the mood for it at some point and I'd watch it then. That mood appears not to have come around in well over 3 years, until the new release arrived the other day. It served as a kick up the butt to make me watch it and with the Easter holidays coinciding it gave ample time to set aside.
It is amazing though how metaphorically "judging a book by its cover" like I did with Friend can taint your impression of the film before you even watch it. In honesty I didn't know what the film was about, other than friendship (how did I figure that out? duh...), and I was expecting it to be more of a school based drama than what I saw. The film shows snippets from four friends' lives, from their childhood right through to adulthood, clearly showing the paths that each has chosen and the effects it has on them and those around them.
While an often gritty but entertaining film, the strength in Friend comes in the development of its four lead characters. Maybe with a touch of too much stereotyping, the film shows how the different backgrounds that the characters come from can shape their personality and affect their views and decisions in life. Joon-suk (Yu Oh-Seong) is the son of a vigilant gang boss, exposing him to the darker sides of life from an early age and working for his father through his latter school years; Dong-su (Jang Dong-Gun) is the only son of an undertaker. Partly ashamed by his fathers career and not desiring that path in life for himself, he finds himself drawn to following the more confident and powerful Joon-suk; Sang-taek (Seo Tae-Hwa) is a diligent student from a more middle class family. While aware of the crime world in society around him, he chooses to work and be educated over becoming involved in violence; Joong-ho (Jung Woon-Taek) is kind of a half-way-house between Sang-taek and Joon-suk. Again from a more respectable family, he tip toes the line between crime and education.
As far as character films go, in my opinion this is a very good film. The development of each character and the personalities of each given their upbringing are all pretty much spot on. The gangster is more confident, aggressive and confrontational, the scholar is more shy and civil, and the follower slowly starts to want to lead, rather than follow his whole life. Being so realistic, it did allow me to predict what was going to happen in the latter part of the film as the two different worlds collide with each other, but where the film kept me guessing was whether in the end friendship would win through.
Credit for the believable characters has to go to the script-writers and the actors portraying them. I do find Jang Woon-Taek a tad annoying though, just like in My Boss, My Hero which did scar the film a little in my books. Each performance is very credible, showing and hiding the required emotions as and when necessary. I thought Jang Dong-Gun in certain scenes was a dead-ringer for a younger Francis Ng, with very similar facial expressions and the mean, moody look of always having your head forward a bit making you have to look up to see forward (see the cover of the Megastar release to get what I mean - he's front centre in it).
While very good Friend still had room for improvement. At times I felt my concentration drifting as the pace of the film slowed. In some of those moments, the scenes on screen weren't gripping enough to keep my attention glued. Other moments had me questioning how realistic some sections were, like where two or three of the four friends are fighting what seems like an entire school in the cinema. You see the fight going on, and then it cuts to the aftermath, with them largely ok. I remember thinking "Yeah, right!!" when I saw that. That being said there are a few very emotional scenes as well which hit home with me. The final "goodbye" style scene brought back memories from my life and with it came a few tears (which being very manly I managed to repress of course). Fair play to the film for achieving that as it is moments like that that can touch the viewer that elevates some films above others.
Audio & Subtitles
This Third Window Films release comes with Korean audio in either stereo or DD5.1. I watched it with the latter. There isn't really much to comment on regarding the audio. Everything is perfectly clear and the surrounds are used when required, but most sound does come from front centre. Not being a big action film, the surround speakers are not given much of a work out.
The subtitles were flawless in grammar and spelling, so thumbs up there. There were no noticeable problems with timing either.
While not a technophile type person, I judge the picture quality purely on how it looked to me as I was watching the film. With Friend it was a good transfer. Detail levels were noticeably higher than letterboxed DVDs, colours were generally well produced, but maybe a little too washed out looking in some scenes. I didn't see much in the way of artefacts or dirt on the print and grain effects on the print were also not very noticeable.
DVD & Extras
On the DVD there is the typical theatrical trailer and a 35 minute "Making Of" featurette with English subtitles. It literally just shows them filming quite a few different scenes and the techniques they used in doing so - like deliberately getting one of the actors drunk so he would be more convincing! There is a bit of repetition in it, most notably with the school glass breaking scenes, but it is still quite interesting to get the actor's take on things. There are windowed voice-overs from Jang Dong-gun in quite a few scenes. There are also trailers for other Third Window Films films, some out just now, others coming soon.
Friend isn't the sort of film I'd actively choose to watch, which is probably why it sat on my shelf for so many years. Having now watched it I can say that it is a very good film, with brilliant character development. It is not a film that I would go back to very readily as I feel I personally have got all I'm likely to get out of it with the one viewing. It is a gritty tale of the development of four people's lives, as some go down the path of violence - and those who live in violence, die in violence. Definitely recommended.