Sin Dong-Il may be one of Korea's unluckiest working filmmakers; his darkly funny debut film Host & Guest took two years to reach DVD after its initial release in 2006. His second film, My Friend and His Wife, also took two years to see release in Korean cinemas after traveling the worldwide film festival circuit to critical acclaim. Then again, it's even easy to see why My Friend and His Wife received similar treatment. Despite having more well-known actors than Host & Guest, Sin's second film is more of the same detached life observations that can alienate and possibly bore audiences. Also, My Friend and His Wife lacks the dark humor and exaggerated characters of Sin's first film, making for even an tougher sit than Host & Guest.
But, My Friend and His Wife is an improvement over Host & Guest in every other aspect, from Sin's script to his visual language. The writer-director knows how to hit viewers in unexpected ways without manipulating them. They just have to get through the first half of the film, in which life slowly unfolds for the film's three characters. Restaurant cook Jae-moon (Park Hae-Soon) and hairdresser Ji-sook (Hong So-Hee) seem to have a happy marriage with a baby on the way, but Ji-sook is sometimes neglected because of Jae-moon's unusually close friendship with old army buddy Ye-joon (Jang Hyeon-Seong). The two are so close that Jae-moon will even leave to attend to his buddy while he's in the process of getting intimate with Ji-sook.
Things change when Ye-joon finds success at his job at a foreign currency firm and Ji-sook gives birth to the couple's son. Despite a rocky patch in their marriage due to the baby and their unsuccessful attempt to immigrate to America, Jae-moon and Ji-sook manage to work things out, capping their effort with a sweet moment in the bath. When Ji-sook goes off to Paris for a hairdressing convention, Jae-moon rekindles his friendship with Ye-joon over a night of drinking at home. However, this leads to a tragic accident that changes the lives of these three characters, as well as their relationship with each other forever.
Even though much of the film's drama comes in the second half after the story's central twist, Sin Dong-Il chooses to spend the first half revealing the characters in their original state before putting them through the second half's chain of twists and turns. This may mean that viewers have to sit through about 40 minutes of seemingly inconsequential events before getting to the core of the film. However, despite the dry, observational style that Sin employs, Sin's choice enhances the changes these characters go through in the second half. The result is an emotional roller coaster that will keep viewers guessing the final destinations of the characters they have observed so closely throughout.
Because of Sin's observational style, much of the dramatic weight is left to the actors. While male leads Park and Jang give commendable performances as the best friends turned estranged friends, Hong So-Hee's Ji-sook really owns the film as its central character. She's the one who drives the characters' conflicts and is also the person most affected by them. Often, Sin simply leaves the camera on Hong's face, fully showing her transformation through multiple emotions in just one shot alone. Despite the film's emotionally turbulent nature, Hong's performance remains surprisingly subtle, masking any kind of full-blown emotional outbreak that would attract an awards committee.
Sin's film isn't one that would scream for award attention, anyway. After all, the emotions are too subtle, and the film - with its extended takes and lack of music - would lose impatient viewers by the time it reaches its core. However, My Friend and His Wife shows a dramatic maturation in Sin's storytelling skills. Sin allows his characters to slowly develop while staying away from typical stereotypes, ultimately making the changes in the characters more convincing. Even the film's messages about social class and greed are delivered in such a natural way that they manage to be compelling and don't overshadow the story.
It's hard to sense the power of the story while watching My Friend and His Wife because of the film's firm grip on reality. However, that power slowly but surely creeps up on the viewer by the end of the film. Naturally, a work that depends so much on an audience's patience is bound to have a harder time finding the right audience not just in Korea, but pretty much anywhere in the world. Even though My Friend and His Wife didn't succeed in putting Sin on the world cinema radar, he will certainly end up there someday if he continues to churn out works as solid as this.
(Kevin Ma, 2009)