Friend, is a about four high school students in 1970’s Pusan that form an inseparable group of friends, despite their differing backgrounds. The movie deals with honor, loyalty, and the question of what it truly means to being a friend. Years pass, however, and fate and violence combine to drive the four apart and test their friendship.

Friend is a true story based on the lives of director Kyung-taek Kwak and three childhood friends. Tthe role of Sang-taek, the wealthier member of the group who goes to study abroad, represents the director himself. The rest of the friends include Jeong-suk, played by Oh-seong Yu, the son of a gangster; Dong-su, played by Dong-kun Jang who you’ll recognize from other Korean films I’ve reviewed, the son of an undertaker and Jeong-suk’s right hand man; and Jeong-ho, played by Un-taek Jeong, the foursome’s comic foil. 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.

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 Chang Dong-gun, of 2029 fame. Yoo shows an impressive range of emotions in his portrayal, but he also leaves a great deal unsaid.

The film opens in 1976 and follows the friends up to 1993, when conflict between two of the friends bring all 4 back together again. In-between, we follow the separate lives of the foursome as they part, come together again, and part once more. Through it all, their friendship is tested and strained and tested some more, especially when two of the four friends end up on opposing sides of a violent gang war.

The performances of Oh-seong Yu and Dong-kun Jang are the movie’s highlights. Both men have great understanding of their characters and are riveting onscreen, especially when they are interacting. Tae-hwa Seo is probably the movie’s weakest link, not because he’s a bad actor, but because his character has very little to do. As the fourth friend, Un-taek Jeong floats in and out whenever he’s needed for exposition or comedy, but otherwise doesn’t make much of an impact. Perhaps most underused is the beautiful actress who plays Jin-suk, Jeong-suk’s cousin. Her relationship with Sang-taek could have been explored more, but the actress and her character is oddly missing from most of Acts Two and Three.

Overall I would say that the movie is very strong and is definitely something to check out. Think of it as a Korean version of Once Upon a Time in America, but better.