Living in Japan, where the treatment of politics and history by popular culture is a fraught undertaking, I find South Korean cinema’s willingness to confront the less edifying aspects of its recent past and current social mores almost astounding. Mainstream Korean filmmakers are so fearless in their desire to question authority that many times they go around the bend and make movies that almost seem to ridicule this tendency. Lee Hwan-kyung’s Best Friend (in some territories the English title is Next Door Neighbor) takes place in the mid-1980s when the government had declared martial law and regularly rounded up student demonstrators and political opposition leaders for torture and imprisonment. His dual protagonists occupy either side of this divide. Lee Eui-shik (Oh Dal-su) is the leader of a pro-democracy party who has spent the last several years in exile abroad. He returns home to South Korea to contemplate running in the upcoming presidential election, but is met at the airport by a group of thugs who cart him off to the headquarters of the intelligence services. Meanwhile, Yoo Dae-gwon (Jung Woo) is a fitfully employed ne’er-do-well who, while doing grunt work for the intelligence services, stumbles on a left-wing cell that gets him noticed by the slimy chief, who puts him in charge of eavesdropping on Lee while he’s under house arrest. Yoo moves into the house next door with two other spies to try to find evidence that ties Lee to North Korea so as to give them an excuse to put him in prison for life.
Despite the relatively serious purport of this plotline, the first half of Best Friend is a comedy, and a slapstick one at that. Yoo and his colleagues are supposed to lay low so as not to tip Lee and his family off that their house is bugged, and this dynamic leads to lots of awkward interactions that occasionally spill over into Three Stooges territory. The dramatic arc that is requisite for any mainstream Korean film follows Yoo’s changing sensibility, which goes from that of a simple man just trying to make enough money to feed his family to someone who grows as much of a conscience as necessary to understand that what he is doing is morally indefensible. Of course, this enlightenment is brought about by his inevitable relationship with Lee, whose own sensibility, based on fairness and trust in the human spirit, never changes at all.
Best Friend doesn’t break any new ground and its reliance on the kind of melodramatic devices that are almost mandatory in Korean cinema these days effectively dampens the political message. Korea is a Manichean society, according to the film, with the authorities as represented by the intelligence services incontrovertibly evil in their methods and intentions, while the liberal party that Lee heads, and in which most Koreans we’re led to believe have faith, is inherently virtuous. Nevertheless, the violence that pushes the plot to its inevitable conclusion in the second half is quite shocking. This 180-degree shift in tone is not surprising, but director Lee seems to be working under the assumption that he has to increase the volitility factor exponentially in order to distinguish his work from past anti-authoritarian dramas, so much so that the ending ends up being ahistorical, meaning it’s beyond revisionism. It’s pure fantasy.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
Best Friend home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 LittleBig Pictures