Gangster movies are almost a dime-a-dozen in Asian cinema. A scan of the shelves of any Chinese video store will quickly net you at least two dozen entries into the genre, such as the ever-popular "Young & Dangerous" franchise, the numerous offerings from Hong Kong über-producer Johnny To ("The Mission" and "A Hero Never Dies"), and even some parodies (such as "Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone" and "Days of Being Dumb"). It was this genre that gave Hong Kong auteurs John Woo (with "A Better Tomorrow") and Wong Kar-wai (with "As Tears Go By") with their big breaks. And outside of Hong Kong, Japanese cinema icon Takeshi Kitano has built a huge international following with his own brand of blood-soaked gangland sagas, such as "Sonatine" and "Brother".
One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of these films are the themes of loyalty, honor, and friendship that are a common fixture in the genre. Taking a cue from the yakuza films of Ken Takakura from the Sixties and Seventies, these films feature tragic heroes who are sensitized to the consequences of their own actions, creating a state of moral contradiction with no easy solution. On the one hand, these characters are bound by what the Japanese call giri, or duty and obligation. However, their duty and obligations are often in contradiction to their ninjo, or their feelings, whether they are love, vengeance, or friendship. As a result, the distinction between right and wrong becomes blurred, creating both internal and external conflicts for the tragic hero.
Like Hong Kong and Japan, South Korean cinema is no stranger to the gangster genre, and one of the best examples from the peninsula would have to be "Friend (Chingu)". A semi-autobiographical look by director Kwak Kyung-taek at how four childhood friends take divergent paths in the criminal underworld as they grow up, "Friend" hits all the notes one would expect from the premise. However, what makes "Friend" a winner is the execution, where beautiful cinematography, a good script, and strong performances go hand-in-hand to create a stirring motion picture.
The story kicks off in 1976, where the main characters are introduced as trouble-making kids in the city of Pusan who spend their days exploring the wonders offered by something called a 'VCR', shoplifting, and making money by selling pages ripped out of Playboy magazine to their fellow students. The film then fast-forwards to 1981, when the kids are attending a local high school. Jeong-suk (Yu Oh-seong of "Attack the Gas Station!"), the son of a gangster, is at the top of the food chain at school, with the pugilistic Dong-su (Jang Dong-keon of "Nowhere to Hide") as his loyal sidekick. Jeong-ho (Jeong Un-taek) is the clown of the group, while Sang-taek (Seo Tae-hwa) is the most diligent and quiet of the group (and the stand-in for the director).
At this point, it is clear that Jeong-suk places a high value on his friendship with Sang-taek, which leads to a fateful decision to defend Sang-taek from being beaten by rival gangs. As a result of the resulting bloody brawl at a movie theater, Jeong-suk and Dong-su are expelled from school, driving them further into the triad world. Over the next decade, the once boyhood friends drift even further apart. As Jeong-ho and Sang-taek go to college and become career professionals, Jeong-suk and Dong-su split off into different gangs, eventually finding themselves on opposite ends of a gangland conflict, which leads to the ultimate test of their friendship.
If you have seen an Asian gangland saga before, then on the plot of "Friend" doesn't hold any surprises. However, with director Kwak's distinctive visual style, which contrasts the warmth and camaraderie of their youth with the bleakness that greets them in adulthood, makes "Friend" a sumptuous feast for the eyes. From the MTV school of filmmaking sequences (such as when the four friends race to see a movie after school), to the explosive fight sequences (such as the brawl that erupts at the theater), to the film's gravest moments (such as a bloody curbside assassination during the Nineties), "Friend" offers the viewer plenty of stirring and unforgettable images, aided by Choi Man-shik's pensive score.
In addition to the cavalcade of exquisitely shot set pieces, the smart script grounds the male melodrama in gritty reality and raw emotion, such as Jeong-suk's battle with drug addiction or the last meeting between Sang-taek and an imprisoned Jeong-suk, who wears his regret on his sleeve. The dialogue is also well written and injects some welcome humor into the proceedings, such as the four childhood friends conjecturing that VCRs will put television broadcasters out of business, or a stern teacher coming to the realization that the young man he administered corporal punishment to is the son of mob leader.
Finally, the performances are the last ingredient making "Friend" unforgettable, with Yu and Jang the clear frontrunners. Those moviegoers only familiar with Yu's comic turn in "Attack the Gas Station!" will be pleasantly surprised by the intensity and acting chops he displays here, and how well he is able to carry the picture on his own. Another terrific performance is turned in by Jang as the mercurial Dong-su, who ends up being consumed by his own ambition and blind sense of duty. Last, but not least, Seo and Dong are credible as the remaining members of the quartet, who are all but helpless to watch their former friends destroy each other.
Since its release in the spring of 2001, "Friend" has gone on to beat the box office records of "Shiri (Swiri)" and "Joint Security Area (Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA)", bringing in over 8 million admissions nationwide (or in other words, it has been seen by at least 50% of the adults between the age of 18 and 35 in South Korea). With its nostalgic look back at twenty years of recent Korean history, it is not surprising that the film's biggest supporters have been men over the age of 30. However, with the rich story and handsome leads, "Friend" has also managed to snare the key demographic of female moviegoers below the age of 30, perhaps the largest consumers of cinema in the peninsula. Being such a critical and commercial success, it is not surprising that "Friend" was recently made available on Hong Kong import DVD and VCD. "Friend" may have its roots in the done-to-death gangster genre, but in the capable hands of director Kwak Kyung-taek, the material cannot help but be fresh and compelling.
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