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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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Erotic Cinema of the Shaw Studios
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My Left Eye Sees Creativity
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One League of Social Consciousness
Emerging Trends in East Asian Cinema
Postwar Korean Cinema
Decline of Hong Kong Cinema before 1997
Rise of Afghan Films
Singapore's Mini Cinema
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Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Korean Title: Chingu
Director: Kwak Kyung-Taek
Writing Credits: Kwak Kyung-Taek
Cast: Yu Oh-seong, Jang Dong-kun, Seo Tae-hwa, Jeong Un-taek
Genre: Drama
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Year Released: 2001
Runtime: 113 min
Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

Friend (Chingu) is what all low-budget movies aspire to be – a film that outperforms all expectations despite its humble beginnings. Friend has seen phenomenal success in South Korea, smashing all previous box office records (including Joint Security Area and Shiri). Based on writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek’s personal life, it tells the bittersweet tale of four friends over a length of 20 years, and how their friendship struggles to withstand the trials of adulthood. Finally making its way to Singapore after a lengthy delay, Friend is a thought-provoking look at what friendship means to different people, but its effect is slightly diminished due to a lackluster translation and overzealous censorship.

The film opens in 1976, in the southern port town of Pusan, where we see the four friends as kids, and the beginnings of their friendship. The foursome makes frequent trips down to the beach, chatter about stuff that only kids will deem important, and make "important" discoveries like the VCR and Western porno magazines. Flash forward to 1981, and all four are in high school – Joon-suk (Yoo Oh-sung) seems to be following the footsteps of his father, who is a local gangster; his sidekick is Dong-su (Jang Dong-gun), son of a mortician; rounding up this motley crew is the soft-spoken Sang-taek (Suh Tae-hwa) and the clown-like Joong-ho (Jung Woon-taek).

Flash forward another three years, and the lives of the four friends have taken drastically different routes. Sang-taek and Joong-Ho have both gotten placements in college, whilst Joon-suk has become a junkie and Dong-su is serving time in prison. Once Dong-su is out of prison, however, he decides to offer his services to a rival gang, thus beginning the slow decay of their friendships. A decade later, both Joon-suk and Dong-su are important men in their gangs, but it is only inevitable that their careers would put them on a collision path that could only end in tragedy.

Although Sang-taek (who is presumably Kyung-taek’s alter ego in the film) is the narrator of Friend, his character takes a back seat to the two gangsters. Both Yoo Oh-sung and Jang Dong-gun are relatively accomplished in their roles, but the contrast is that whilst Oh-sung’s performance becomes more muted further into the film, Dong-gun’s character does the exact opposite. However, Dong-gun’s emotions are restrained even at the end, and his nuanced portrayal of silent rage and despair is the more memorable one.

Friend can be best classified as a hybrid coming-of-age and gangster film, and the wide-eyed innocence of the first segment is starkly contrasted against the violent nature of the latter part of the film. Kyung-taek also bathes the childhood sequences in golden light whilst making the adult sequences gritty and much less flatteringly. Certain snippets of dialogue seem to bear special significance, but the bare-bones translation does not help to bring out the deeper aspects of the discourse. The poor translation also makes the denouement much harder to interpret, and coupled with jarring censorship at certain parts of the movie, a viewer that does not pay full attention to the film may find events to quickly become confusing. Despite the flaws, Friend remains an absorbing watch, and certainly points to the possibility that the South Korean film industry is destined for further greatness.

Final Word: A variant Asia gangster movie that features more knives than guns (and no impressive action choreography), Friend is an interesting film, but perhaps can only be fully appreciated with an uncensored, properly subtitled copy.