20 Thoughts: Friend, Our Legend
Title: Friend, Our Legend (친구, 우리들의 전설)
Network: MBC (2009)
Length: 1 season (20 episodes, approx. 60 min each)
Director: Kwak Kyung-taek
Writer: Kwak Kyung-taek
Cast: Hyun Bin, Kim Min-jun,
Disclaimer: there will be all kinds of spoilers! Also, art being what it is, what I like and what you like will almost certainly be different, and that's ok. I would love to hear your take on my take, so please leave comments!
1. Friend, Our Legend is the drama adaptation of Friend, a 2001 film that set all sorts of box office records in South Korea, won critical acclaim across the globe, and turned its cast into overnight superstars. The drama is an attempt by the film's creator/director, Kwak Kyung-taek, to redraw the same story on a larger canvas, filling out the backstory and the plot details that were missing in the feature-length original. He also wrote the screenplay for the drama, adding details from his own formative years growing up rough in Busan in the 1970s and '80s,
2. The drama was fully pre-produced, unusual for a series on terrestrial television back in 2009, with painstaking attention to period detail and the entire main cast speaking in strong Busan satoori. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because FOL was a ratings nightmare for MBC, and the network briefly considered pulling the show before the end of its 20-episode run.
Though well-loved by critics, the drama did not appeal to a broad viewing audience. Most had fond memories of the film original and didn't like seeing other actors playing the iconic roles they were used to. Others just didn't warm to a drama that offered none of the usual romance and/or warm-and-fuzzies.
3. This is a drama about death. The death of a person, yes, but also the death of a long-and-cherished friendship. The death, usually the finale of most gangster plots, is instead presented right at the beginning. What follows is an unrelentingly bleak look at the breakdown of a relationship, a death that comes slowly over the course of 20 episodes, an inevitable descent into the abyss rather than an explosion. It's almost literally a death by a thousand cuts.
This is also a drama about love. The love of one man for one woman, yes, but also the love that we get from our oldest friends, our found family of youth. There's a bond that forms between people who meet by chance and as children, and it is every bit as fierce and sustaining as romantic love. FOL asks what happens when the only relationship you can depend on is also the one that lets you down in the worst possible way.
Unlike in Hollywood, where gangster films are almost always about macho excess and male posturing and where the gangster lifestyle is at least romanticized if not outright glorified, FOL revels instead on friendship, both its joy and its pain. This is not a story about gangsters. It is a story about friends who just happen to be gangsters. (There is a bit of male posturing though, because, well, men).
4. FOL is a sort of coming-of-age roman a clef partly based on the director's own childhood. It's a story about four people who grow up together and then grow apart with devastating consequences. Two of the four—Han Dong-soo (Hyun Bin) and Lee Jun-seok (Kim Min-jun)—are gangsters and the story largely revolves around them. The third, Kim Jun-ho (Lee Si-eon), is a steady friend, observant and reasonable, but unremarkable because he is neither especially pretty nor especially tragic, and is eventually reduced to mostly comic relief. The fourth, Jung Sang-taek (Seo Do-young) is polished and smart, the one who gets out of Busan and makes good in a conventional sense. But he’s also somehow the most morally vulnerable and easily compromised of the four.
Thankfully, the drama also takes time to tell the stories of this group's female friends. Choi Jin-Suk (Wang Ji-hye), Min Eun-ji (Jeong Yu-mi) and Park Seong-Ae (Bae Gu-rin) are part of an all-girl band in high school and they form a lifelong friendship that feels both warm and familiar. They each have markedly different interests and aspirations, but their friendship is built on mutual support that outlasts their teen years. While it's less intense and volatile than the friendship between the boys, it's also a bond that is sustained over time even though these women end up living very different lives.
5. Dong-soo is FOL's main character and it is the sharp rises and falls of his life that make up much of the narrative. He's a natural fighter, combining the evasive skill of the boxer with the sheer brutality of the righteous angry young man. Over the course of the series, there's a slow shift in Dong-soo, from the innocent to the damned, a man staying barely one step ahead of a darkness that threatens to consume him, a sensitive and artistic child who encounters disappointment after disappointment and ultimately hardens into a violent brute.
The irony is that Dong-soo is at best a reluctant gangster. Pulled into the mob world by both circumstance and a misplaced sense of loyalty, he struggles to fit in as Jun-seok’s right hand man, but acknowledges that this is the choice he made, regrets or not. In the era of Squid Game, and the notion that nobody really has a choice in a world run by greedy capitalists, it’s both jarring and poignant that Dong-soo only blames himself. He didn’t have to be a mobster, but anything else would have left him living on the fringes, or as he puts it, “suffocated by life.”
6. Unlike Dong-soo, Jun-seok is actually born to the gangster life, but he too is a misfit for a profession he falls into by default. His mother—a sad and terminally ill figure—dies early, leaving him adrift in a world where people listen to his fists but not his words. He never learns to process his grief properly, and takes his anger out on the world, simultaneously pathetic and dangerous. He and Dong-soo are both best friends and fierce antagonists. Neither is comfortable with either role, but their fates are tied together, both heavy and inevitable. However, here Dong-soo appears resigned to his lot in life, Jun-seok bristles at the lack of control and initially acts out, until the death of his father and an outside chance at a normal (non-gangster) life turn him around. Ironically, he discovers his humanity just as Dong-soo loses his. “But a tiger remains a tiger,” as everyone around Jun-seok ultimately discovers to tragic consequences. If it's Dong-soo's fate to die, it is Jun-seok's to be forever haunted by his friend’s death.
7. Jin-suk is the object of immediate affection for three of the four friends. Dong-soo falls for her instantly but quietly, keeping his feelings to himself until he thinks the time is right. She doesn’t see him at first, drawn instead to the walking tragedy that is Jun-seok. But he’s initially a violent addict and a womanizer, and she leaves him. She gravitates towards Dong-soo, and particularly towards his quiet strength and reliability. But she’s not prepared for either his sacrifice (when he goes to jail for Jun-seok) or for the intensity of his affection when he comes back. She vacillates, gets bad advice, and tells Dong-soo she needs money more than she needs a man. He accepts this and bides his time, but ultimately, she goes back to Jun-seok, and for Dong-soo, this is the ultimate betrayal. His descent into despair is complete, his empathy and kindness buried forever under the violence he wears as armor.
8. FOL is also a series about how our choices define our lives, and how one bad choice can rob you off the agency to make better choices later. At one point, Jin-suk tells Dong-soo that she broke up with a struggling and addicted Jun-seok because she wanted to be in charge of her own life. But events take a tragic turn, and soon, everything spins out of control for her too. Like Dong-soo, her efforts to stay ahead of the inevitable pain and darkness are to no avail, her smile more mask than shield, as her life and her agency fade before our eyes.
9. There are other figures around Dong-soo who more or less compound the multiple tragedies of his life. There is his mild-mannered mortician father (possibly not Dong-soo’s biological father) who loves his son but in a remote and detached way that makes it impossible for the two men to connect. Dong-soo calls his father out for not really knowing him, one of the rare times he allows his pain to show. The tragedy is that Dong-soo doesn’t see his father’s anguish either. There is Dong-soo’s mother who abandons her family in pursuit of love and excitement, leaving a gaping hole in her young son’s heart. This scar is so deep that even when Dong-soo is no longer himself, he reaches out to her, desperate to know why she left him. All he really wants from his parents is some sign that he mattered to them, but he doesn't get this until it's too late. Like everything else he’s experienced, this too is disappointing, another inevitable tragedy.
And then there’s Eun-ji, the local fishing magnate’s daughter. She’s the typical teen princess, pretty, spoiled, and definitely not fond of getting her hands dirty. But she's a good judge of character, and she immediately develops a huge crush on the teenage Dong-soo. When she finally confesses her feelings though, he's mature enough to let her down gently. She goes off to a college stint in America, but still has feelings for him when she returns. She knows Dong-soo is carrying a torch for Jin-suk, but she offers herself up anyway, letting him know that--maybe unlike Jin-suk--she at least can love him with her whole heart. It’s an offer Dong-soo understands but can’t take, because as he puts it, she’s a happy person and he is not. Of course, it turns out she’s just as sad as he is (if much tougher than anyone imagines), and that too is a tragedy.
10. Part of the lingering sadness of Dong-soo’s life is that he dies lonely and isolated, never realizing how much the others cared about him. He doesn’t realize that Jun-seok tried really hard to keep him away from the mean streets; he doesn’t know that Sang-taek rats Jun-seok and Dong-soo out to the prosecutor specifically to save him from the consequences of bloody revenge; he doesn’t give much weight to Jun-ho’s earnest advice that he doesn’t have to be a gangster; he dies not knowing that Jin-suk was in love with him; and he definitely never gets to see his infant son because Eun-ji is protecting Dong-soo from her father. Had he known even one of these things, he might have fought for himself, he might have run away from the darkness. That's one of the lessons of FOL: you should tell people the things they need to hear, because there may not be a second chance.
11. The drama is full of small moments that pack a huge emotional wallop, tiny wordless exchanges that are nevertheless so fraught with meaning and pain that they leave you sobbing. The one that stayed with me long after I watched the drama was the look that passes between Dong-Soo and Jun-seok as the former lays dying. There is shock and grief and futility from Jun-seok, but from Dong-soo just a sort of resigned smile, as if he’s accepted his fate and just wants to take one last look at his friend. It is utterly heart-breaking, and made worse by the fact that their pain remains unshared, unspoken.
12. FOL was broadcast in 2009, and pretty much sank without much of a trace. The drama, the actors, the writer/director, nobody received any sort of awards for their work here. But at least in this case, that is no indicator of quality. Everything about this production is absolutely top-class, and it begins with the acting.
This is far and away Hyun Bin's best work in a drama series. It is a quiet and carefully calibrated performance, drawing from Jang Dong-gun's original portrayal in the film, but also entirely it's own thing, a slowly sizzling stick of dynamite. Asked to be both sensitive and menacing, HB delivers in spades. His hard work with the Busan accent shows, but dropping his voice an octave to give the character a completely different personality is truly impressive.
My fangirling of Hyun Bin's acting prowess is hardly new, but allow me this one extra observation. The man has enormous and preternatural screen presence. Although he’s one of the leads in FOL, he’s often just in the background of scenes, with no speaking lines and without the camera trained on him. His body language and his face make him impossible to ignore, however, and your eye is automatically drawn towards him. This is a gift not many actors have, and I hope we get to see more of it in the near future.
13. Like Hyun Bin, Kim Min-jun puts on a fantastic performance, an effortless marriage of sneering menace and meditative guilt. He's also from Busan and obviously relished the chance to use the accent. I did not expect much from someone whose most famous credits before FOL were his wooden turns in Damo and Lovers in Prague, but if Hyun Bin is dynamite in this part, Kim Min-jun is a hand grenade with its pin loose.
Speaking of acting, the older actors in FOL are brilliant, clearly enjoying themselves and this rare opportunity to chew scenery in a drama full of younger stars. Particularly noteworthy is Lee Jae-yong as the gangster San-gwon, whose penchant for shiny polyester suits and ugly wigs is outdone only by his menacing smile and his complete lack of ethics.
14. This is a beautifully shot and realized drama. While it may pale in comparison to the grand vistas and gorgeous scenery shot in HD now, there’s something about the camera work here that really stands out, particularly in the smaller action-free scenes. There’s also a deliberate gritty feel to the drama, so that even when the sun is glinting off the surface of the ocean on a gorgeous day, it’s the rust on the fishing boats that stands out. The last few episodes are shot in a driving rain that washes all the colors out of the scene and adds to the gritty misery of the plot.
15. The drama deliberately steers away from making sharp social commentary, although there is a subtle indictment of society and its mores in practically every episode. Both Dong-soo and Jun-seok become gangsters by default, and in the end, they are both terrible people who believe the ends justify the means. There is a particularly harrowing scene where Dong-soo beats up a man of the cloth and then gets his henchmen to destroy a leper colony to clear land for his mob boss's illegal construction scheme., for example. FOL doesn't glorify these men or their conduct. But it also asks us to ponder if gangsters exist to make up for other institutional failures, that maybe there are arguments with those in power you can only win with violence, and justice that can only be delivered outside the law.
Interestingly, for a narrative that deliberately blurs the lines between good and bad, nearly everyone who is objectively bad gets their comeuppance at the end. Dong-soo dies, Jun-seok takes the fall and goes to prison for a long time, the mobsters and the corrupt officials they support are exposed. But things are never that neat in the real world, and many innocents get caught up in the wake of justice too: Jin-suk who has to flee the country with her infant son, Dong-soo's father who has to prepare his own son's battered body for cremation, and of course, Eun-ji who will have to raise her child alone in a society that looks down on single mothers and on fatherless children.
16. There's no other way to put it. This is a hard watch. FOL is not a drama you can watch passively while folding laundry. It demands your attention when you watch it, and you have to chew on it for a long while after you've watched it.
Each episode begins with a quick intercut of scenes from the “present” (early 1990s) and then winds back to a decade earlier, when our characters were just finishing up school. Their youth is shot through with sunlight and joy, an idyllic time that underlines the misery and chaos of their present. The plot takes no prisoners, opening with the end of Dong-soo's life. Because we already know darkness is coming, each episode comes wrapped in built-in anxiety as you wait for the other shoe to drop. This is an interesting narrative device that helps maintain tension and that all-pervading sense of doom for 20 episodes. But I suspect it was also necessary because the basic contours of the plot are the same as in the film original, and FOL is intended to fill out all the gaps.
17. When I first watched this, it felt raw and heavy, but I didn’t like it. Friends-to-enemies and good-man-gone-wrong are standard k-drama tropes, and the fact that everything here kicks off because of unrequited love? C’mon.
But the more I thought about what I had seen, the more it hit me that FOL is not a drama so much as a contemplation. It doesn’t care about what happened, it cares about why and how. There’s no fan service here, no attempt to lighten the mood, to give viewers a more hopeful ending. It is bleak at the beginning, and mostly bleak at the end, though leavened a tiny bit by the closing montage of all the characters as carefree children running through the streets of Busan, friends forever.
18. It’s not perfect. Like most dramas, it’s about five episodes too long although the middle episodes are less draggy than they are ponderous and dense. There are some odd camera choices in the fight scenes that felt a bit like stepping into a music video from the late 90s (and maybe that was deliberate). The main cast is entirely too old to be playing teenagers, even just for a few episodes. But on balance, FOL is a great example of a thoughtful and tightly-spun narrative supported by a stellar cast who absolutely understood the assignment and nailed it.
19. FOL is a definite classic, an underrated drama that nevertheless deserves to be seen, even if it’s not the sort of experience I would typically recommend. The k-drama buffet tends to be heavy on dessert, but every now and then, we all need to eat something less fun, but with more meat. This is that drama.
20. If you liked this, you might also like:
Friend: The Great Legacy (2013; starring Yu Oh-seong, Kim Woo-bin)--a feature film from the same director as the original film and FOL, this sequel is set in the early 2010s and features many of the same characters as the original film and FOL, and as before, the framing device is Dong-soo’s death.
Snow Queen (2007; starring Hyun Bin, Sung Yu-ri)--this drama was completely different in theme than FOL, but it has a similar thread of sadness and melancholy running through it, and here too, Hyun Bin plays a a sensitive young man whose aspirations are constantly thwarted by fate.