My Friend and His Wife

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Hong Kong International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- Shin Dong-Il made a splash in Korea's noisy industry in 2005 with his low-budget gem "Host & Guest." That film was a tight, 90-minute two-hander about an evangelical Christian, his skeptical friend and how they affect each other with their words. Shin injects a third character into his sophomore effort, "My Friend and His Wife," with mixed results.

"Friend" is the kind of movie that could sneak up on filmgoers with a limited independent release on the heels of strong word-of-mouth from the festival circuit. Distributors who found audiences for such intimate dramas as "Snow Cake" or "The Child" might get them to return for this.

Jae-moon (Park Hee-soon) is a modest cook expecting his first child. His wife, Ji-sook (Hong So-hee), is a hairstylist, and the happy, stable couple also plans to relocate to the U.S. after the birth. Jae-moon's best friend, Ye-Joon (Jang Hyun-sung), is a successful, high-powered stockbroker. For all Ye-joon's bonuses and fancy luncheons, he doesn't really connect with anyone in his professional realm.

Jae-moon and Ji-sook are swindled out of their savings, and it's Ye-joon to the financial rescue. With their hopes of heading overseas all but destroyed, Ji-sook makes a conscious decision to make something of her life regardless. To that end, she goes to Paris for a five-day trade show, leaving Jae-moon with their infant son. Disaster unfolds on a night when Ye-joon makes a sudden, self-serving visit and the baby dies.

The first half of "Friend" is an eerily precise portrait of a Korean marriage -- from Jae-moon's misplaced loyalty to his friend to Ji-sook's postpartum frustration. Shin and co-screenwriter Kim Young-nam find all the right ticks and somehow manage to gently mock matrimony such as it is while still making the central couple empathetic. A major influence on the dynamic within the marriage is Ye-joon and Jae-moon's mutual envy and dependence, albeit for differing reasons. The relationship between the two men is as intense as the one between Jae-moon and Ji-sook.

The defining moment for the trio is reminiscent of the low-impact bus crash in Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" in its silent devastation. After the baby dies, the film switches course and follows all three -- equally traumatized -- in the years afterward. Still simmering just below the surface are rage, crippling grief and guilt, sometimes at the same time. Each is haunted by what essentially was an accident, and the unassuming image also haunts the film like a ghost.

The effect the child's death has is reflected in strong performances from Jang, Park and Hong that manage to capture the latent resentments and feelings of obligation without the histrionics so common in Korean family dramas.

Sadly, "Friend" goes wrong at exactly the moment it should have wrapped up. The contrived ending belongs in a bunny boiler a la "Fatal Attraction" more than it does in a deliberate study of loss, guilt, loyalty and redemption. That the film is at least 20 minutes too long explains the strained feel of what amounts to an unnecessary epilogue before the epilogue.

MY FRIEND AND HIS WIFE
A Prime Entertainment, LJ Film production
Credits:
Director: Shin Dong-Il
Screenwriters: Shin Dong-Il, Kim Young-Nam
Producers: Lee Seung-Jae, Bae Jeong-Min
Director of photography: Kim Seok-Koo
Music: Ahn Hye-Suk
Editor: Moon In-Dae
Cast:
Jae-moon: Park Hee-soon
Ji-sook: Hong So-hee
Ye-joon: Jang Hyun-sung
Running time -- 119 minutes
No MPAA rating
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