Bottom Line: An engaging, rambling slice of lives in transition drama from Korea's second city.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- In the mid-1990s, Gwak Gyeong-Taek made a splash with "Friend," a Busan-set crime drama focused on four school chums who eventually went their separate ways. Director Park Joon-Bum's feature debut, "Dodari," also is set in the port city and treads vastly different territory. More like the social-realist dramas of Mike Leigh (but not nearly as dense), "Dodari" takes a look at the life of three friends at a crossroads in their lives. This low-key drama is carried along by generally strong performances and a look at Korea's less glamorous side.

A Korean independent drama centered on life someplace other than Seoul will attract festival attention internationally, particularly at Asian-themed fests. The meandering film has only the slimmest of emphasis on plot, and so domestic and Asian success could be minor if the film gets a wide release at all.

Sang-Yeon (Park Sang-Yeon) is a student on the verge of being shipped out for his military service. To pick up extra cash, he takes a job as a waiter at a nightclub, and quickly ends up as a popular escort. Woo-Seok (Kim Woo-Suk) works on the docks while he studies for a police recruitment test. Chung-Guk (Kim Joon-Young) is the wild one of the bunch and has rap star ambitions. It's Chung-Guk's debt to a loan shark that puts pressure on all three, a burden that becomes even heavier when Woo-Seok's uninsured brother lands in the hospital after an accident on the job.

With a minimum of dialogue -- the bulk of which consists of "asshole," "motherfucker" and "son of a bitch" -- Park, Kim and Kim do a completely convincing job of creating a picture of three tight male friends, complete with knowing looks, inside jokes and physical shorthand. Adding depth to their relationship is the unspoken reluctance of each to truly open up to another.

When Chung-Guk borrows money from Woo-Seok, he demands Sang-Yeon never find out about it. Woo-Seok never really admits how important the police test is to him, and the more sentimental Sang-Yeon takes photographs and revisits places the group spent time at instead of simply letting the other two know how much he values their friendship. The film's flaw is in the romantic subplots that come close to bringing the deliberately paced film to a dead stop, a stark contrast to the compelling dynamic within the trio.

Director Park clearly has an eye for images, with several individual shot compositions standing out as exemplars of visual storytelling. The closing image of Sang-Yeon sitting by the coast by himself says as much about the characters and the impermanence of relationships as anything else in the film. He coaxes natural, charming performances from his leads, and his native familiarity with Busan and its working-class mentality raise "Dodari" above being a standard film about young men trying to get a life.

A Rough Cut production
Director-screenwriter-producer: Park Joon-Bum
Director of photography: Kim Sung-Chul;
Production designer: Kim Ryun-Hee
Music: Kim Ji-Keun, Ji Sang
Editor: Kim Sol
Sang-Yeon: Park Sang-Yeon
Chung-Guk: Kim Joon-Young
Woo-Seok: Kim Woo-Suk

Running time -- 101 minutes
No MPAA rating