Friend is classic storytelling; at times humorous, compelling, dark but also uplifting. Four young boys become friends, doing all the things lads do... like swimming out too far at sea and arguing who would win a race between an Olympic swimmer and a turtle! And then they're off watching a little soft porn on an intriguing new electrical gizmo that records from television - yes, the year is 1976 and Betamax is trying to make it into every home. We follow the boys through adolescence into the eighties and secondary school - where teachers' discipline means a swift, and often many swift slaps. Slaps that sometimes become punches. And punches become... well, they would lead to worse, but for the fact that Joon Suk lets the teacher know that he's a gangster. Now, although this momentarily stops the beating, the teacher cannot help himself, believing it to be a clever ploy. But Joon Suk is indeed a gangster, and along with sidekick Dong-Su (Dong Kun Jang), who went on to star in Taegukgi, the two youths gradually sink to the depths of depravity that hoodlums generally descend - namely drugs and prison.
The story is more or less built around these two gangster buddies - leader and sidekick - with Sang ta-ek and Joong-ho leading more normal lives as they continue their studies and generally toe the legal line. But whilst they are less in the limelight throughout the movie, director Kwak Kyung-Taek manages to create a familiar feel for all four friends and I found myself remembering my own schooldays - bullies, pals and all. It's Kwak Kyung-Taek's filmmaker's ability to create a certain empathy for the characters - both good and bad - that holds the movie together, whilst the collision path that the two gang members ultimately find themselves leads to an ending that is both violent, yet surprisingly moving.
I enjoyed Friend. For some reason it reminded me a little of Sleepers - yes, the two movies share little by way of major storyline, but there is a similarity in the way the movies achieve their purpose through a slow, deliberate build up of tension leading to a rather distressing ending. Perhaps it's the solid acting abilities of all concerned here, or the way the director somehow manages to keep things gelled together, but whatever it is, Friend is a movie that has that rare ability to encourage the viewer back for a second helping. Yep, I'll be watching this one again.
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