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2006/03/21 | 341 views | Permalink | Source

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A touching tale of four high school friends from the southern port city of Busan

Darcy Paquet (internews)

You could hear the rumbling several weeks before it was released, and then when "Friend" hit the screens, it lived up to its hype. Four high school students in 1970s Busan form an inseparable group of friends, despite their differing backgrounds. Years pass, however, and fate and violence combine to drive the four apart and test their friendship.

Director Kwak Gyeong-taek's voice trembles when talking about this, his third feature, and it's little wonder why: "Friend" is a true story based on the lives of his three childhood friends (the role of Sang Taek, the wealthier member of the group who goes to study abroad, represents the director himself). Although the tragic story seems in some ways made for the screen, very little was altered in its telling. But it's not so much the story that distinguishes this film, but rather the feeling with which it is presented.

One major aspect of this movie's power is its cinematography. This has to be one of the most gorgeous Korean films of recent years, from cityscapes that resemble watercolors to the graceful shattering of windows and doors. Director of photography Hwang Ki-seok, a relative newcomer to the film scene, should take pride in the work he has created.

Actor Yoo Oh-sung has been distinguishing himself for several years with remarkable if largely unheralded performances, but this is clearly his breakout film. His acting dominates the movie, despite fine performances from supporting actors and his popular co-star Jang Dong-gun. Yoo shows an impressive range of emotions in his portrayal, but he also leaves a great deal unsaid, making for a complex portrayal that begs a second viewing.

Apart from creating this testament to his friends' experiences, Kwak has also forged a vivid portrait of his native Busan. From the heavily accented Gyeongsang dialect to elegant shots of its harbor, Korea's second-largest city is presented here in rare beauty. Although made famous by its international film festival, Busan has seldom been presented on screen, making this film feel even more like an urgent, exciting discovery.

Darcy Paquet writes for Variety magazine and is also a programme consultant for the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. A native of Massachusetts, he has been living in Korea since 1997.

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