April 10, 2014

Friend: The Odds are Four to One Against You, Kiddo

At first you might puzzle over the singularity within this movie's title. Why Friend instead of Friends? After all, this pic is about a quartet of boys whom we watch mature from adolescence to adulthood. But as the cinematic years (and the real-time minutes) roll by, you realize there's only one relationship that counts to writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek: The one between Sang-taek (Seo Tae-hwa), a cowardly nerd who goes on to earn his PhD, and Jeong-suk (Yu Oh-seong), the son-of-a-thug who becomes a thug himself. The other two pals -- Dong-su (Jang Dong-gun) and Jeong-ho (Jeong Un-taek) -- are there for local color. At least in theory. The catch is that the camera adores Yu, who practically makes the screen burn, and doesn't care about Seo, who fades into the background, like a set piece. For all I know that could've been writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek's intent. Since the film is semi-autobiographical, maybe he finds the more conventional middle-class life less thrilling than the dangerous and violent world of Jeong-suk and his sidekick Dong-su, the undertaker's son who ends up a formidable gangster himself.

The life of crime has more action, whether it's fighting with a crowd of high school kids while using anything within reach as your weapon, or giving a knifing master class that addresses both tools and methodology. Blood spills in movie theaters, back rooms, restaurants, karaoke clubs, and rainy streets. But the cruel impact of the mob's dog-eat-dog ethic is ancillary here as the fragile kinship between Jeong-suk and Dong-su ultimately says more about Jeong-suk's friendship with Sang-taek than anything else. Which isn't a bad thing. There's a certain satisfaction that comes with Dong-su getting repeatedly dismissed, belittled and humbled then watching him rise in power in Busan's ruthless underworld where he ends up Jeong-suk's rival. I was particularly taken with how Jeong-suk holds on to the past and wants to minimize their rivalry while Dong-su seems to embrace it, to heighten the tension. Old grudges die hard for those who get the short end of the stick -- which can be used to knife you.

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