Twelve years is a long time in the film world but for Korean cinema it seems like almost an eternity. In 2001 I had yet to seen an Asian film, let alone be aware of Korean films. Yet when I did dip my toes in two years later, Friend (2001) was among the first crop of Korean films I saw. With its nostalgic air and easily relatable theme of friendship, delivered through a conflation of coming of age, high school and gangster tropes, it wasn't hard to see why it became the most successful Korean film of all time. Though its record has since been broken many times over, the film's reputation lives on.
Director Kwak Kyung-taek, whose life story served as the starting point for Friend, returns to the film that propelled him into the A-list 12 years ago. However, after such a long time, much of what made the original a success is no longer evident in this new sequel. Sure, the coarse Busan dialect (which was nationally popularized by the original) remains, but the coming-of-age narrative and the camaraderie that marked it, as well the juxtaposition between the gangster worlds and other 'normal' segments of society, have not survived in the sequel.
In this newfangled follow-up, Lee Joon-seok is released from prison after an 18-year stint. Time served for the murder of his best friend Dong-su, a crime he took the fall for on behalf of his gang. Shortly before rejoining society, Joon-seok takes the young Sung-hoon under his wing: a violent and troubled youth, yet one who shows promise. What's more, he's the son of Dong-su, though he is unaware of Joon-seok's connection to his father. As soon as he is released, Joon-seok finds himself embroiled in a power struggle for control of his gang. Dong-su becomes his right-hand man as tensions in the syndicate escalate.
This storyline takes up most of the narrative but also featured are a number of flashbacks to the rise of Joon-seok's father as a gangster in the 1960s. With a bit of fashion panache and evocative lighting thrown into the mix, not to mention the cool Joo Jin-mo as the father, these sequences have style yet they lack any tangible correlation to the present. There's some talk of the recurrent gangster theme of honor and we see a little of where Joon-seok's temperament comes from, but it's not as if we needed these sequences to understand his motivations. The first film and Yu Oh-seong's taciturn performance as the hard-as-nails gangster already fulfilled that aim. As such, stylish though they may be, these throwbacks seem largely superfluous.
In the performance department, Yu fares the best as he convincingly portrays an imposing presence who is both very controlled and fair (at least for a gangster) yet capable of extreme violence all the same. As Sung-hoon, Kim Woo-bin (who made his chops as a model) always looks like he's just walked off a fashion catwalk. With his Tom Ford sunglasses, overly arched eyebrows and a very showy stab at a thick regional accent, Kim is all posturing. The same could be said of Joo, whose thinly-drawn character doesn't give him much room to do more than look the part, which he certainly does.
As a gangster film, Friend 2 fares fine but is a step below recent efforts Nameless Gangster and New World, both of which injected a lot of new blood into what was becoming a tired genre in Korean cinema. In small bursts, Kwak's film is quite violent and the stakes start to stack up pretty high towards the end. Though the escalation, visualized as ever-larger groups of bat and pipe wielding thugs, goes a little overboard. This is particularly noticeable in the soundtrack's gigantic swells, which are clearly trying to rouse a strong emotional reaction. However, detached as I was from the film, these grandiloquent musical flourishes left little impression.
Friend 2 begins with something of a tease, as early on the recognizable and stirring string theme from the first film ebbs into the soundtrack and hints at its charm, but without the boyish camaraderie and "through thick and thin" bravado of the original, its swell quickly dims over the ensuing prosaic gangster narrative. When it returns at the end, and climaxes over a dirt-spattered prison wall, its effect amounts to little more than a nostalgic coda. However, rather than for the sweet memories of past youth, the effect is redolent of a superior film from the past.