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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?