The best love stories make you cry halfway through before bringing everything together for a picture-perfect ending. At least, that’s the kind of story that Tomoko Asai (Kyoko Fukada) claims she prefers in Friends, a four-episode drama co-produced by the Korean network MBC and its Japanese counterpart TBS. And in a lot of ways, that’s a fairly accurate description of the drama itself.
In the opening moments of the show, we are introduced to Tomoko and her close friend Yuko (Akiko Yada), two young Japanese girls on vacation in Hong Kong. After Yuko ditches her gal pal to hang out with her long-distance boyfriend, Tomoko is left to wander the streets of Hong Kong alone. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before a thief makes off with her purse. Not content to play the helpless victim, Tomoko gives hot pursuit, sprinting after the crook.
Meanwhile, an aspiring Korean filmmaker named Kim Ji-Hoon (Won Bin) finds himself dealing with an uncooperative actress, who has just exited his amateur film project Looking for Love. Coincidentally, Ji-Hoon just so happens to be wearing the same white New York Yankees hat as the purse-snatcher, and when a furious Tomoko crosses paths with him, a case of mistaken identity ensues, resulting in our Korean protagonist making an unexpected trip to the local police precinct.
One off-screen interrogation later and the police have released Ji-Hoon unharmed. Embarrassed by her mistake, Tomoko apologizes profusely to an understandably irritated Ji-Hoon. He’s not interested in what she has to say, but Tomoko persists in trying to make things right. She follows Ji-Hoon, as beautiful girls in fiction tend to do, and after the two get into a dust-up with the real thief, Ji-Hoon and Tomoko recover her purse, albeit sans money.
Since Tomoko doesn’t have any cash and doesn’t know her way around, Ji-Hoon decides to take her to his auntie’s Korean restaurant for a meal. He tries to pull a prank on her by getting his auntie to make the dish extra hot (in fact, too hot for him), but to his surprise, an unaffected Tomoko happily eats it! Clearly, there is something more to this Japanese girl than he originally thought.
Tomoko and Ji-Hoon communicate through hand gestures, pidgin English, and writing, the last of which allows them to learn that their names share the same Chinese character. A conversation of sorts follows. Ji-Hoon eventually shows her his script for Looking for Love, and Tomoko agrees to step into the lead role to pay him back for his generosity. Despite the fact that his Japanese is rudimentary and Tomoko’s Korean vocabulary is limited to words like “kimchi” and “bibimbap,” the two form a fruitful director-actor partnership, resulting in an impromptu tour of Hong Kong that's sure to please the Hong Kong Tourism Board. As their filmmaking partnership unfolds, an attraction develops, and the duo shares an innocent kiss under a fireworks-lit night sky.
Eventually, the two would-be lovers have to return to their respective countries, but before they do, they exchange e-mail addresses. After the Hong Kong vacation, we finally get a glimpse of their day-to-day lives. Tomoko has to slough through the drudgery of a thankless nine-to-five job in a department store. In addition to Tomoko’s best friend and colleague Yuko, her supporting cast includes her supportive single mom (Keiko Takashita) and a male co-worker (and not-so secret admirer) named Shouta Sakamaki (Yukiyoshi Ozawa).
Ji-Hoon’s life is somewhat different. As the eldest son, he knows that he will have to work in his father’s company after completing his mandatory military service and finishing college. His dream of becoming a director seems like, well, just that - a dream. And it’s one that he’ll have to give up. His circle of friends and family include childhood pal, Park Kyung-Joo (Lee Dong-Gun from My Boyfriend is Type B), a Korean James Spader-type who will warn Ji-Hoon of the difficulties of a cross-cultural romance and eventually be a prime example of someone who pursues his dream, but without overwhelmingly positive results
Kyung Joo’s sister Hye-Jin (Han Hye-Jin) also figures into the mix, as a potential rival for Ji-Hoon’s affections, although the admiration is clearly only one-sided on her part. Rounding out the Korean cast are Ji-Hoon’s supportive mother (Sunwoo Eun-Sook) and his stereotypically strict, scowling, and altogether disapproving father (Doko Young-Jae). These characters will be much more central to the plot than the Japanese regulars, although they have their moments as well.
Returning to the protagonists, we find them both caught in a state of paralysis about their life choices, and it’s the romance that erupts between them that finally gives them that kick in the butt they both need. Tomoko takes the initiative and e-mails Ji-Hoon, and they soon become fast and furious e-mail buddies. The two live in different countries and come from different cultures, but they remain undaunted. What commences is a romance that spans years, nations, and all sorts of personal setbacks for our characters. Considering all this hardship, one might wonder if their cross-cultural romance will survive, particularly in light of Korean-Japanese tensions. If you’re unclear about what happens, go ahead and re-read the first sentence of this review.
One of the most interesting aspects of Friends is the contrast between its main characters. Ji-Hoon has dreamed since childhood of becoming a famous filmmaker, but he has to contend with his father’s disapproval and expectations. Tomoko has the most supportive mother in the world who wants her daughter to follow her dreams. The only problem is Tomoko doesn’t have an urgent, lifelong dream she wants to achieve. She doesn’t even know what to do with the rest of her life. Like all good entertainment, Friends provides its audience with a vehicle of escape. For young men, it’s a fantasy about shrugging off the weight of parental expectations and following your dreams, not to mention dating a beautiful young woman in the process. For women - perhaps most pointedly those stuck in dead end jobs - the drama presents viewers with a character who has no idea what to do, but eventually discovers what she wants, changes her life for the better, and – much like the first fantasy – finds her Prince Charming along the way.
Kyoko Fukada, who has a knack for looking cute-as-a-button at the drop of a hat, possesses a real chemistry with Won Bin, whose easygoing smile is sure to disarm viewers prone to his charms. Furthermore, the film balances out the drama with a healthy sense of humor. No one really wants to watch a tragedy unfold here. Thankfully, nobody gets an incurable disease and dies. For the most part, Friends plays fair.
Seen through a more transnational lens, Friends isn’t just a romantic puff piece. The show continually highlights Japanese-Korean tensions through the premise of a relationship, and also examines the baggage that can bleed over into the character’s differing mindsets. The drama also includes a character named Midori (Naho Toda), who is of Korean descent but living in Japan. Her presence is used to point out the Japanese prejudice against Koreans. In that respect, Tomoko serves as a stand-in for the naïve Japanese (and non-Korean) viewer who has little-to-no knowledge of the tortured history between the two nations or how that history has impacted embedded attitudes and prejudices of both nations’ citizenry.
While the drama is indeed a co-production, Friends seems much more about introducing Korea to Japan than it is the other way around. Through Ji-Hoon’s story, we have a veritable Korean cultural showcase, as we learn about compulsory army service, religious traditions, and conventional family dynamics. No such parallel exists in Tomoko’s storyline, as it seems clear that the production team felt that Japan needed to be educated about Korea, but not necessarily vice versa.
As Asian dramas go, Friends is remarkably short. But the four-episode length makes for leaner, better-written storytelling. Dramas, both good and bad ones, tend to create artificial problems for its characters and then proceed to drag them out for episodes. That doesn’t happen in Friends. For instance, early in the show, the two characters lie about their professions. Tomoko says she’s a fashion designer, and Ji-Hoon claims to be a professional filmmaker. Rather than stretch this out over the course of an episode, their lies are admitted and resolved immediately.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of times when conflicts occur, but rather than use those times for full story arcs, they're put on the fast track to a resolution - and all because of the limitation in number of episodes. Thanks to this nearly instant gratification, Friends doesn’t wear out its welcome. It’ll make you tear up a time or two at least, but by the end you’ll be beaming away. Such is the way with a good love story. If you’re interested in Korean and Japanese dramas, but don’t know if you have the patience to watch twenty-plus episodes, Friends would undoubtedly be the perfect place to start. (Calvin McMillin, 2008)