Friend, Our Legend

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This is the review that very nearly didn’t get written. For one thing, I very nearly didn’t finish watching the twenty episodes of Friend, Our Legend (MBC, 2009) (“FOL”), having stalled altogether in the early episodes at my first attempt. For another, I have such mixed feelings about this drama, I’ve found it hard to write a coherent review.

Initially, I was intrigued by what others said about this drama. “Heart-breaking.” “Hard to watch.” Most intriguing of all, “I loved it, but I would never recommend this to my friends.” With a dis-recommendation like that, how could contrary-me resist? My own reaction has touched extremes, from indifference to utter absorption. Though I gobbled up the last four episodes and was left speechless and emotionally wrung out, I can’t deny that the middle of the series was a slow hard slog for me with stretches of (dare I say it) boredom. I’d say, provocatively: I don’t love this show, but I recommend you watch it.

And why should you watch this?

Watch Hyun Bin Give the Performance of His Life

Anyone who says that Secret Garden was the best performance of Hyun Bin’s career probably hasn’t watched FOL.

tour de force

In FOL Hyun Bin plays Han Dong Soo, the emotional core of FOL. It is his personal journey we track, his very descent into hell. Dong Soo is both innocent and hardened, both over-sensitive and stoic, a good man and an irredeemably damaged man. Hyun Bin plays him with a dedication and conviction remarkable in an idol star who made his name in romcoms and melos. We follow him, enthralled and horrified, as his sensitive boy grows into a drifting and conflicted young man, and finally tormented brute.

Some publicity says that this drama is a story about the death of friendship. And indeed the fragmentation of old friendships is sad. Some say that this is all about gangsters, and there’s certainly a lot of gangsterish behaviour going on. But the heart of this story, it seems to me, is how Dong Soo loses hope. And it is his despair that drives him to turn his back on love and friendship, and nihilistically embrace the dark side of himself and of society. And it is Hyun Bin’s portrayal of a man driven to the despair that makes FOL so unforgettable.

Having been subjected to Binnie hamming it up in Secret Garden, I have a horrible feeling FOL may forever be his tour de force. Because he may have reached the ultimate heights of his acting talents in FOL, never again to be touched. Here he is handed on a platter a thoughtful script, assured directing, and a fascinating character who doesn’t say much but who shifts and grows and pulls you into his world and into his broken heart. And he makes the most of it. If this is indeed the performance of his life, Hyun Bin has nothing to be ashamed of.

Even as I rave about Hyun Bin’s acting, I must remember to give credit to his co-stars. Hyun Bin’s sheer gorgeousness tends to hog the screen, but in the more subtle moments his on-screen friends round up the ensemble nicely. Kim Min Joon who plays Hyun Bin’s best friend Joon Suk who is both Dong Soo’s emotional anchor and nemesis; he has screen presence and impressive emotional range and I’m going to be keeping an eye out for this actor.

nemesis

The uncomely Lee Shi Un gets plenty of opportunity to show off his comic skills, being sadly reduced to comic relief for much of the time; but when his Joong Ho gets to be the reliable one and the voice of reason, he delivers in a way that makes you love him. Seo Do Young rounds up the group of four high school friends and competently conveys the conflict of his smart and strait-laced but morally vulnerable Sang Taek.

4friends

The supporting cast is amazing. And I suspect some of the more mature actors are having the absolute time of their lives playing unsavoury gangster bosses and corrupt politicians in all their larger-than-life glory. Lee Jae Yong is a stand-out for me, as Sang Gon the magnetically menacingly mobster, who at times seems to be the only man who actually enjoys being a gangster. And by the way, I totally didn’t recognise him as the comic Minister of War in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, he was such a totally different (and scarifying) person in FOL.

sang gon 1-200 sang gon 2-200

Wang Ji Hye (dreadful as In-bot in the dreadful Personal Taste but redeeming herself nicely in President), playing high school friend of the four Jin Sook is, to quote ockoala, luminous. She is so captivatingly beautiful it’s not hard to believe that all the men in her vicinity are in love with her. At the same time, she’s not a cipher or a mere object of affection. She is very much her own person. She has her own desires and passions, her peculiar faults, her strengths, her own greed and pride, and her own affections and dignity.

Jin Sook

Like any k-drama, FOL characters conform to certain types. But their demonstrable humanity and touches of unpredictability make them just about three-dimensional enough to raise them above the common order.

Expand your Horizons

Many of us use k-drama for escapism, myself included. Often I just want something light and entertaining to pass the time of an evening after a hard day’s work. K-drama is frequently the candy of my life, and who is to deny me my sugary treats? But once in a while, I crave meat. I want to watch something that may not make me feel happy or gratified, necessarily. I may want to watch something a little challenging, a little thought-provoking.

In case you haven’t worked it out by now, let me say that FOL is NOT FUN. It is not designed to put a smile on your face. Its purpose in life is not to fulfil your fluffy fantasies or to bring out the fangirl in you. You’re not going to wish to be any of the characters of this show or to be romantically or otherwise entangled in their messy lives in any way.

From the first shockingly violent frames, you are left in no doubt whatsoever, as surely as when the curtain rises on a Shakespeare tragedy or the first pages of a Thomas Hardy novel turn, that this will Not End Well. The point is not who dies (which we see in all its grisly glory in Episode One), but how it comes to pass. And why.

In the first few episodes, scenes of grim betrayal and gangster meltdown are interspersed with flashbacks from the growing-up days of the four friends, full of youthful high jinks and dreams but already troubled and shot through with foreshadowing. This is an effective device, so effective that I found the ratcheting sense of doom hard to slog through. Personally, I found the show easier to deal with once it got past the mid-point and resided solely in the adult world; which, while still grim, was at least getting closer to the end and closing the gut-wrenching gap between idyll and disaster.

dies

I flagged as a viewer in the mid-episodes partly because of flagging pace and partly because the whole relentless Thomas Hardy-esque narrative of “Everything that can go wrong, will” and “If you try to fight back, life will knock you down good, so don’t you dare fight cruel fate” is not only un-fun to me but even predictable and tiresome at times. For I found the slow-cooking tragedy – Hyun Bin handed one raw deal after another, thwarted at every conceivable turn – somewhat like death by a thousand cuts. And in my grumpiness I was unable to appreciate the interspersed lighter moments (designed to keep the viewer from slitting his wrists), even finding them lame at times. I am quite willing, however, to admit that this is likely due to my inability to appreciate Great Art and my hamster-like attention span.

In any event, I was eventually rewarded for my perseverance. I was so blown away by the ending I remember but faintly the pain I felt mid-series (though by the same token I can’t remember all that happened in those slow episodes). And perhaps the ending wouldn’t have been as powerful as it was if it hadn’t built up slowly on a simmer?

lost 1-160 lost 2-160

Because this show is not about the fun. It’s about the death of hope and it executes its mission with determination. No easy fan-service here, no selling out to wish-fulfilment. At the same time, no concessions on quality. This is no hastily cobbled together prime-time fodder. This is a carefully crafted script; lovingly shot, clear-sightedly directed and exactingly edited. It came as no surprise to me to learn that this show was pre-produced.

I know this is Quality. Subjectively, I roll my eyes a bit and sigh, “Oh brother, not another obviously tragic tale of childhood friends turned mortal enemies, oh woe is us (gimme a break); and sensitive soul turns brute because of unrequited love, are you kidding me?” But objectively, I understand where this show is coming from, I really do. I understand the slow-burn style of story-telling. I appreciate that it’s taking its time and not hurtling along in an unseemly rush. I honour it for not pandering to its audience or pulling its punches for the sake of an easier watch (and higher ratings).

Experience a Slice of History

I have no idea how accurately the show portrays the underbelly of organized crime and shady politics in ‘70s and ‘80s Busan. As accurately, I suppose, as any gangster movie. In any event, FOL is remarkable for its sense of time and place. Its palette is brown, its dialogue is in broad dialect, and it leaps to life in all its grime and grit.

history

In keeping with the full sensory experience, there’s quite a lot of music from the period. Overall, the soundtrack music is fabulous. It’s packed with quality music from a variety of musicians (proper musicians; not light-weight idols), with a mood for every occasion, from fun and joyful (No Brain’s high-energy Run, my new favourite in my jogging playlist) to the heart-breakingly wistful. The pathos of the story is fully supported by a range of full-hearted sung and instrumental music.

See a Slice of Life

This show is not so much about “what happens”, as “how” and “why”. Hence the measured and deliberate pace. When I’m in the mood, I can sit back and savour each scene, each facial expression and each line. When I’m impatient, I can get to wondering where it’s all heading and feeling bored. Which may say something about my deplorable attention-span and need for constant stimulation. Or which may indicate that in expanding a story from a movie to a 20-episode drama, quite a lot of padding got stuffed in.

Which is regrettable. Because when I am in the mood, the best bits are the slow bits.

slice

The bits, for instance, involving the four friends’ parents. Their lives range from mundane to melodramatic, and their characters range from quietly stoic to outrageously resourceful, from saddeningly virtuous to jaw-droppingly reprehensible. As they sit in their living rooms or go about their business, these ordinary people come to life. As with all great slice-of-life dramatic art, you don’t sense that these are a bunch of actors playing out a narrative device. You feel that these are real people, pulsating with all their regrets and sorrows, their coping with life, and the joys they steal from the fates… reflecting life in all its colour.

And there is a lot more to FOL then I have the space or skill to do justice to. In the large cast of characters we have a fascinatingly diverse lot: a wise and compassionate school inspector (in a sea of clownish teachers), a steely money-laundering madam, a young woman who appears to be a shallow middle-class princess with a crush but turns out stronger than anyone imagined, a gangster boss who takes his vocation dead seriously, a gruff sea-captain with the heart of a teddy-bear, a delinquent cousin turned psycho mobster, a dedicated policeman loyal to his brother’s gangster friends, etc. And the show ranges beyond tragedy and loss of youth to exploring the heights and depths of integrity, survival, corruption, politics, nation-building, filial piety, love, and honour.

Are you Man Enough?

I confess, I very nearly wasn’t man enough for this ballsy work of television art. Nearly a year ago now, ockoala and I enthusiastically inaugurated a “FOL group-watch” (a group of all of two, ho ho). ockoala soon left me eating dust, as I stalled in Episode Three, finding the bleakness too hard to take. I had to wait until I was in the right mood – ready to take on something meaty, ready to cope with what I knew was going to be an emotionally hard ride – before I could resume the series and finally polish it off.

I don’t regret the time and energy I expended on this series. I can’t say I enjoyed every moment, but I can definitely say that my k-drama-watching experience has been deepened and enriched. In time to come I’m sure I will forget many k-dramas I have watched. I will never forget FOL and its sheer emotional punch. Are you man enough for FOL?

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21 thoughts on “Friend, Our Legend

  1. Thank you so much for this awesome review, Serendipity! I’m still waiting for the right timing to watch/resume this (stalled at ep 1 many moons ago).

    Having been subjected to Binnie hamming it up in Secret Garden, I have a horrible feeling FOL may forever be his tour de force.

    I have the same thoughts about KMM and White Tower… *sighs* To think of him getting so much adulation for Beethoven Virus…

  2. I honestly am completely floored. I have yet to finish FOL…I think I stopped at episode 2 or 3. But this is one of the best reviews you’ve written (and you write such lovely reviews :) and I think you’ve captured the essence and the depth of FOL. Seriously an excellent review! As soon as things slow down for me in RL, I plan on picking this up again. SG was a huge let down for me since I really do like Hyun Bin and I feel the same on how people said SG was Hyun Bin’s greatest role…

  3. Wonderful review, as always! Ah, now I’m itching for a rewatch. Dong-soo…*sob* I may have hated Secret Garden, but I can’t hate Hyun Bin for being in it, purely because of this drama. I will forever have a soft spot for him because of this exquisite role – the role of his career.

    Funny how I was surprised when you said you found the middle episodes dull. I personally found FOL highly addictive, and never thought it slowed down or dragged. Then again, I have a distinct love for slice of life narratives (the slower the better!), and I adore tragedy. I love sobbing and using up an entire box of Kleenex while watching a drama. It’s the Korean coming out in me, I swear.

  4. To incorporate joy into a review of a drama about sorrow and pain, loss of hope and welcoming darkness… that’s no small feat. Well done you!

    I personally didn’t ever find FOL to be slow or draggy, but I confess to gripping the arms of my chair so tightly my fingers hurt throughout every episode, because the dread of what to come was so palpable. Despair hangs over this drama like a cloud. Even moments of joy make you nervous, because you know from the very beginning that, as you said, it just isn’t going to end well. But by the same token, I wouldn’t take a million bucks for having had this experience. It was that profound for me. Hyun Bin was robbed. He should have won every award there was and then had a few more awards invented just for him, for good measure .

    WONDERFUL REVIEW!

  5. Oh, dear friends, thanks for your affirmation! I felt so stupid and inarticulate writing this review and still don’t feel I’ve done the show justice.

    I mean, I forgot to mention how brilliant the beginning and the end were. How is it that they can re-play the events of the first episode, with a just a few extra bits thrown in, and 18 episodes later instead of being mildly puzzling and rather distastefully violent the exact same scenes are leaving me in a weepy mess, mourning for poor Dong Soo, horrified for his lost soul, gripped by the turn of events, saddened by life, and terrified wondering how it was all going to end? It’s all in the pure genius of what happened between Episodes One and 19. Sigh. Pure genius. Not to mention, what a courageous narrative approach, to throw away all the advantage of suspense.

  6. Serendipity, thank you for writing the review of FOL, I likes Hyun Bin’s performance in this show, he deserves at least a nomination to the best performance of the year in my humble opinion.

    FOL is not a easy watch to begin with, I read good reviews from my favourite bloggers and decided to give it a try, I did try 2 times to watch the show(stopped at ep 1 and take me months to give another try) because FOL is not a show with entertainment purpose only, it contains a lot of heart and it’s beautiful narraction is both artistic and thought provoking.

    Han Dong Soo is a boy with talent in art, however his special gift only landed him a scold from his primary school teacher; he wants to pursue his dream to go to university and participating in boxing; it only let him learned one more time that live is not fair. He tried to live quietly to become a fisherman but fate/his personality draws him to make a wrong decision.

    In FOL movie, I like the mob boss character more than Han Dong Soo but in the drama version, Hyun Bin’s performance steals the show alongside with Lee Jae Yong. If you feels for the charcters in a show I count it as a successful drama and FOL is definitely the one.

    • Yay! Another FoL fan! Yes, you are right. I didn’t think of it that way, but the show has a great deal of heart. It can be brutal. But it can also be caring and delicate.

  7. Thank you for this beautiful review, serendipity. Sometimes I wish I could forgot FoL, perhaps then I can get a part of my heart back. It is a hard yet easy drama to watch. Hard because it is so brutally unflinching, easy because it is so gutwrenchingly moving. After I watched episode 20, I cried for good long time, and the second I saw your review, I actually started crying before I even read a single word. FoL is a reminder of what a K-drama (or any form of storytelling) can accomplish when you put intelligence together with heart.

    • Aw. *pet pet* I totally understand. We are like a rare but tightly bonded club (notice how I’m not exactly flooded by reams of comments here, lol). Initiated by heart-break, bathed together in copious tears, scarred forever, but also comrades in exhilaration.

  8. Kyah! And all this time I thought it to be some cringey F4-ised story of gangsters. I mean, I balked at the idea of Seo Do-yeong (blah) and Kim Min-joon (half-blah) attempting to play gangsters (if that’s the way the story rolls). But looking at the images, it’s totally not what I’d imagined.
    It’s just one of my pet peeves is when taking a weighty topic and then not giving it the gravity it deserves and that definitely doesn’t seem to be the case here.
    Also, Lee Jae-yong has pretty much made a career out of this kind of role, but then he can also play the nice guy when given a chance — with natural warmth and depth. He’s one of my fave actors.
    *plonks Friend on must-watch list*

  9. It sounds good. I maybe will check this one. I’m in the mood for angsty drama right now. Recently I can cry easily when something moving happen while watching. So maybe It’s time to watch something drama with full of angst. Thanks serendipity for your review.. :)

  10. Wow thanks so much for this review. you know FOL is my new drama-weekend (dramas i watch when i go home on weekends with my mom and sis) and i’m in episode 5 waiting for next weekend to come quickly because this drama is sooo good. i’m all over the web looking for recaps or reviews, and there aren’t. so i’m so happy when i found this!!!!
    i’m loving FOL already, yet it make me so sad. i’m glad i know from the beginning DS dies, cause if it came by surprise at the end, i could’t resist the blow. the sting is how can these friends loose their frienship? it pains me so much.
    the acting is amazing. the photography too. the way they frame the story…. so far one of the best dramas quality wise

  11. I have been contemplating watching this one for awhile but now that I can stream it right to my TV from crunchyroll.com I am much more inclined to do so. However, given how many tears I will probably cry I’m a bit scared. I tend to get way too emotionally involved in dramas for my own good. I guess I will have to toughen up for this one.

  12. For me, FOL is the best work of Hyun Bin. I tried to find a good review about his job in this drama -trying to see if there are other people who share my thought about his superb acting here- but the review for the drama itself is so few to find. I love Secret Garden but silently regret it when some people never knew about his work in FOL. They do missed something huge. I’m glad to find this. We share the same thought about the acting and characters but I never found this drama as ‘slow’. Honestly, I rewatch this more than I do Secret Garden. Thanks for the review.

  13. Thx for the review you really got me interested in watching it!! As soon as a “crave” something good and serious :P its my first on my watch list ;) But right now with summer classes and exams, I need something light to make me forget my stress!!! lool I do like Hyun Bin alot!!! Some ppl here seem that they weren’t impressed with him in Secret Garden, but i found that he did a great job of at presenting us with the personality of Joo Won, even though the personality of an obnoxious chaebol president has been done b4, I found his performance different and attracted my full attendance. So going back to the point, now I’m just surious about his performance in Friend, Our Legend!!!! and the story itself. Btw I love the title of it, find it effective!!

    Thx again for this review it was great read :D

  14. I found this page only after reading about it in DB and am so happy to know I am not the only one who feels that Hyun Bin was at his best in FOL. Bought the DVD more than a year ago but never really wanted to start it but now I have just finished watching all 20 episodes and at the same Hyun Bin won for SG which I felt was rubbish.

    Every Hyun Bin should watch FOL to see his best prerformancve yet, I cried when he died but knew he had to die:(

    Please Hyun Bin, get more roles like this, you are so talented it is a waste to see you do rom-coms only.
    Thx for your review and I am a big fan of yours now thudie:)

  15. Hi Serendipity, I just wanted to say THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! for this review because I would never have watched this amazing drama if it weren’t for this blog and Dahee’s blog. Your question “are you man enough (or in this case woman enough) for FOL is really what got me through it. Really! It was excruciating, simply an exercise in self-flagellation to see what happens to Dong-Soo, and that too Hyun Bin as Dong Soo! His performance was simply remarkable and I hope to see him play more roles with such emotional depth because I have not seen anyone do it better! His roms and melos are wonderful too but this one just outstripped all that. I went from Hyun Bin fan to Hyun Bin uber fan after this series.
    This drama should have won so many awards…I simply do not understand how it did not even get nominated. I have not seen such a flawless tv production in an age, and people do not even seem to know about it! Just feeling very indignant here thought admittedly very late in the day. :)
    All the actors were sooooo good! And I really unexpectedly liked the character of Eun Ji though much later in the series. There is a genuineness to her character that I found the lead heroine lacked after a point, but maybe this is because I don’t really understand the latter’s choices. I love the way, the characters evolved over a period of time and the audience is shown that growth without really going into every millisecond of it. Anyway, it seems FOL has a new fan and I just wanted to say thank you again!

  16. Loved your review btw, the best Iv’e seen on this drama so far and Iv’e checked all the others.

    I personally agree with everything you said, Hyun bin was brilliant and I take no credit from him whatsoever.

    However.. I’m a huge fan of the original film that was released in 2001. And there were a couple of major differences that slightly bothered me. Dong Su may have been passionate and loyal until the moment he felt betrayed but he was no angel either. I feel like this drama has made Dong Su’s character into a constant victim of his situation, as if he had no idea of the endless pit he was descending into. My idea of Dong Su’s original character is that he knows exactly what he’s what he’s in for, what he’s in the gangster game for and that his main problem right from the get go is being second fiddle to Jun Seok, be that romance or respect as the number 1 alpha male. He is a rather selfish character from many points of view but the drama plays him out as a very innocent tough guy.
    I feel like this drama was revolutionary for it’s grit and boldness, but I would have liked it to take a tiny step further with his idea and really show Dong Su for exactly what he was in the film.

    Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite my critique of that particular area.

    It’s a fantastic addition to the legacy of what was already an unforgettable story

    A definite recommendation from me

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