Bottom Line: A surprisingly engrossing cross-generational exploration of relationships and emotion.Pusan International Film Festival
BUSAN, South Korea -- Anyone who enjoyed the sweetness of "The Road Home" is likely to find "The Friends" charming in its own right. A simple summertime story about the relationship between an elderly man and three elementary school boys has all the trappings to be insufferable but somehow manages to avoid being cloying or obnoxious, thanks in large part to strong performances by its young cast.
"The Friends" could be a moderate hit at home, but festival play is likely to be confined to those that are Asian-themed.
After becoming moderately obsessed with death at the beginning of the summer, Young-Tan (Jang Jun-Yeong), Dong-Hee (Lee Seung-Hyeon), and Ye-Joon (Baek Seung-Do) start hanging around an old man's house, sure he's going to die soon. They want to be there to witness it. The old man, Oh Gil-Tang (Oh Hyeon-Kyeong), catches them lurking near his yard one day and words are exchanged. That leads to a few practical jokes and the requisite response.
What begins as a war of attrition eventually becomes a friendship, with the three boys spending their days at Oh's house, listening to his stories, planting flowers, setting off fireworks, and trying to reconnect him with his long lost love.
The simplicity of the film is part of its charm: The relationship between Oh and the boys is unfettered and pure, and the technicals reflect that. Director Lee Young-Jae ("Harmonium in My Memory") slowly builds to the point where the boys come to the understanding the friendship can transcend death, and that relationships are eternal. It's an old-fashioned idea that can easily be relayed by histrionics, but Jang, Lee, and Beak's performances walk the fine line between innocent understanding and mawkish.
Oh as Oh is really the hinge the film relies on. Too crotchety and he would never have believably won the boys over, not crotchety enough and there would have been no conflict, however minor. Lee has a light touch with emotional storytelling and "The Friends" is a prime example of his ability to tell a story with only the slightest of plots.
A Cinema Zenith production
Director: Lee Young-Jae
Screenwriter: Lee Young-A, Kim Hwan-Bae, Lee Young-Jae;
Based on the novel by: Kazumi Yumoto
Producer: Lee Dong-Ha
Executive producer: Kim Doo-Chan
Director of photography: Kim Cheol-Ju
Production designer: Kim Ki-Cheol
Music: Lee Han-Na
Editor: Park Kok-Ji, Jung Jin-Hee
Young-Tan: Jang Jun-Yeong
Dong-Hee: Lee Seung-Hyeon
Ye-Joon: Baek Seung-Do
Oh Gil-Tang: Oh Hyeon-Kyeong
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating