Sunday, May 10, 2020

[Review] How To Buy A Friend (2020)

This 4-episode long gem took over the slot left empty by Tale of Nokdu (which ended in November but was left open since then) and from the first second I loved absolutely everything about it - each frame, each word, the camera movement, the editing, music, the problems presented here, the actors.
The end.

The first episode was sponsored by the letter C like - cerulean blue. And also Crime.
So now, before we (me, myself and I) jump into the series and not necessarily Coherent thoughts, let me present you the beautiful - to the point of Crying - shots from the first episode. And yes, I included the one with our main character curled up in the room filled with many broken and not working things while he himself broke both his soul and other person's trust. But as some things can be fixed - he managed to fix himself as well. That is why, even though it does not fit the color palette - but it fits the emotional palette of the series - the frozen things thaw and broken things can be fixed.

Both the series and characters start around the same - in the deep embrace of the Winter. In the span of merely 4 episodes they changed along with the weather.

There is a story with the roots in Jataka tales – about the friendship among the family of hawks, a lion, turtle, and a kingfisher. One day the hunters rested under the tree with the hawks family nest and the babies started to cry because of the smoke. So, hunters decided to eat the young birds for breakfast – by setting the tree ablaze. Hawk parents cried for help and the kingfisher came to the rescue, trying to put out the fire with water from his feathers. But by midnight he got tired, so the hawk parents asked the turtle for help – and he managed to put out the fire with the mud he carried. Then the hunters decided to eat the turtle but even though they tried to catch it with their clothes, the turtle managed to get away. So, they decided to wait. But hawk parents did not. They asked the lion for help – and the lion came! With fearsome face and roar – and the hunters ran away trembling with fear.[1]  

There is also another story – about Damon and Pythias. A legend that is the foundational base of the proverbial friendship ties: about the mutual trust and honoring the deal. In short, Pythias is accused of plotting against a tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse who condemns him to death. However, Pythias makes a request to be temporarily set free to settle all matters he was meant to do so before he was swept in all of the accusations. The tyrant allows him so on one condition – that someone will be held hostage for the time Pythias is out of the city to settle his affairs and should Pythias not return – to be executed in his stead. Pythias then asks his friend, Damon, to take his place, promising him to return before the deadline set by the ruler. And indeed, he comes back, so Dionysius has no other option but to free them both, much moved by the friendship and love he just witnessed.[2]

These two examples serve as the introduction to the topics that this series dealt with – mainly friendship and also how to find yourself in the whirlpool of life. Because no matter how different our main musketeers were, they all came for each other when that storm came[3].

The main plot is not overly complicated and spans few weeks only – enough to change people. And everyone from our main five characters changed, getting influenced by others. The main source of the tremble that caused this was Chanhong, an unusual boy because he was so usual.

The story starts a year after the events that trigger the plot. A year before, during the beautiful season of spring, one girl jumped to her death from the school roof. The cause was ruled as something fairly common within the good students group – anxiety over the grades. The school life went back to normal. Except for four people and two of them were more or less informed about what really happened. The other two were the emotional collateral of things going on that were bigger than them.

There was a scene of Chanhong and Seyun's date at the beach, and the series just had to add a painful contrast - we saw the two people happy, walking on the beach at the early stage of their budding love that was growing, and then we saw Donhyeok walking the beach all alone so that it would be easy to suspect he probably was walking it with Seojeong when she was still alive. And now, he's as alone as that lighthouse behind him.

It starts with Chanhong, narrating (in a lovely saturi) how much of an average person he is – to the point he blends with the students’ collective community, dissolving into the common idea of a bodyless and shapeless STUDENT. He says his nickname is “ninja” – because he is invisible, and almost as to prove his point he’s brushed by the guy who didn’t notice him – a school bully, on his way to torment a student. Chanhong does not have things he hates, but also does not particularly like anything either. He has no grand plans for himself, his grades are average, he’s just an average student in total. And then, one day, one class and one task will change his life course for ever, will put him on the path to self-discovery, will make him risk his life for others. Their poetry-admiring Korean language teacher asks his pupils to write a poem. And so it happens that Chanhong writes the lyrics of the hip-hop song, which lands him not the total rebuke from the teacher, but he is nominated to participate in the artistic competition between schools. He learns that a girl he has a crush on is also participating (but as a painter), so he agrees. Despite knowing next to nothing about poetry in general. The competition takes place in a secluded area, clenched in the claws of the glittering winter snow. The participants are given few hours to come with the product of their artistry and they are free to roam the area. Then Chanhong musters up the courage to talk to Seyun even though the girl seems to mirror the weather around them – she’s frozen. She’s a talented painter but her parents hate her hobby and want her to choose something more “tangible” and money-making as the future career. Plus, as we learn, her indifference and coldness have also another reason – she was friends with Seojeong, the girl who jumped. They both belonged to the artistic club at the school and they were friends, so her death stunted Seyun for a whole year. As we can guess – both win their respective categories and their work is displayed at school. And this is where all hell breaks loose.

Chanhong becomes the target of a school bully – Daeyong, who also bullies another classmate – Seongdo. At the same time, Chanhong’s class welcomes a new student, repeating the year because he spent one in a correction facility because of the fights he tends to get involved in (or at least that is what the rumors say, because the rumors are yet another character in this series). Enter Donhyeok, a student everyone tries to avoid, so we may guess he’s sitting with Chanhong who also tries not to irritate his new desk-mate. But after Donhyeok sees the poem that gave Chanhong his victory, the avoidance is out of the picture. In his poem, Chanhong used the last words Seojeong sent both to Donhyeok and Seyun (an amazing sentence, if you ask me, but I won't post it here). Given that Seyun was her best friend and Donhyeok her boyfriend – the focus that suddenly shifts onto Chanhong is understandable.

We learn that Seojeong took her own life not because of the grades, but because of the rumors she was sleeping around. Some pictures were circulating showing her half naked and unconscious. So she was shunned and worse – she could not explain all this neither to Seyun nor Donhyeok. We later learn that she was drugged with a rape drug, so the pictures were taken freely. I won’t disclose why because I don’t want to spoil too much for those who would like to witness this story for themselves.

During Chanhong’s visit in the place where Donhyeok currently lives, he overhears that the landlady is demanding the rent otherwise she will have to throw him out. So Chanhong, being the most empathetic being on this planet, hands her an envelope with the money inside. Money who was supposed to cover his additional classes. Donhyeok, being the honorable being that he is, promises him to pay back. They strike a deal as well – Donhyeok promises Chanhong to protect him (against Daeyong, most likely) and Chanhong is going to help him to figure out what happened to Seojeong, because suddenly she’s being mentioned left and right and some people are looking for her phone. A phone that has Iron Man figure hanging on a thread. Donhyeok has the nickname Iron Man…

And the opportunity for Donhyeok to prove how loyal he is comes soon – because Daeyong bullies Chanhong after he failed to impress Seyun during their meeting (for which Chanhong still feels guilt and self-hatred) and even more importantly – because he suspects Seyun might be in possession of the pink phone that holds a threat to the political candidate Jo Pyeongseob and she’s not above hiring thugs to kill people (kids included). And the lady has Sangpil in her employ, who in turn employs some minions to do the groundwork. To make things even more complicated – Sangpil and Donhyeok used to were friends. And when Daeyong attacks Seyun, Chanhong jumps to her defense and then Donhyeok appears to beat the living crap out of Daeyong.

And this is how the story here ties up with those two  mentioned at the beginning - we have reliance on other people, we have trust in other people that they will help us if or when we'd ask. And here Donhyeok comes, just as the kingfisher or a lion. And also Chanhong comes, as well as Seyun - and they all protect each other, they help each other even if it means death. Donhyeok decided to even forfeit Seojeong's phone for Chanhong's life - a decision that was against every fiber of his stubborn being. And yet he has done that. And not because he had a contract with Chanhong (what he just spit out in the moment of exasperation and desperation), but because they became real friends.

The defining moment for both of them comes after tracking people involved in Seojeong’s death – at the university. This lands them at the police station. And here comes the part I absolutely loved – the arrival of Chanhong’s parents. They not only bailed their son, but after quick question whether that big guy was his friend – they bailed also Donhyeok. And the guy who was tougher than a granite pillar became dumbfounded at the kindness of Chanhong’s parents. They invited him to their house (because it was late), made nice dinner, gave him pajamas and treated as a treasure. And I think this scene at the dinner table showed what kind of people they truly are – and what Donhyeok really wants, even though he could not admit that even to himself, hellbent on finding the truth about Seojeong’s death. But what he didn’t know was also that he yearned for forgiveness. He hated himself he didn’t express enough he believed her when she couldn’t explain the pictures, so that guilt was slowly blackening his days and freezing his soul. The dinner with the family who wasn’t shy of showing affection somehow changed his switch.

Even though he nearly choked Chanhong half an hour later feeling he was deceived because of the phone.

The series is narrated mostly by Chanhong, working through the inner mechanisms of his sensitivity, but as the plot progresses – the plot gives voices to other characters involved. The off-side voice works both as the inner Chanhong narrating what is happening to him and also as the other characters commentaries to their own thoughts and what was happening.

And even though I really loved everyone from the Three Musketeers (OK, let's add Gyeongpyo, even though he could be weird), I wanted to see Donhyeok happy the most, so when episode 4 gave us him smiling – I was elated. He deserved to be back to normal life, and he deserved to have friends who cared for him. And even though the painful memories would probably never leave him, he decided he was open to make new ones, happy ones. This is why we were shown his room after he returned to his family – with pictures sitting on his desk and shelves. Pictures of Seojeong but also of all of his new friends.

This does not mean he can always stay calm, because people around tend to get on his nerves.

The series itself implemented a somewhat buckle technique again – it started with our main two boys being beaten up and on the verge of getting killed, and the fourth episode finally brought us back to this scene with its outcome and the aftermath. And even though the series hinted here and there at the possibility of Seojeong’s death being forever buried in a lie, it was not the case, fortunately. The video from the much-coveted pink phone was used to bring Pyeongseob to justice.

Also, the endings – oh my gods, how creative the endings were! We had a (often a black and white one) frame within which everything moved except for the main focus of the scene. This was amazing and it was again used at the end of the last episode to bring back events and to focus, most of all to focus, on certain points.

There is so much in terms of social issues this series covers in just 4 hours - we do have dirty politicians involved in the nighttime life and employing thugs to do their bidding (and even molding people into thugs), the toxic relationship between the politics and education. We have school bullying - Seongdo is even willing to die after exacting his revenge aimed at random people because he couldn't aim it at his bully (however what he says in the moment of exasperation is true - everyone knew he was bullied and no one did anything, until Chanhong finally had enough and intervened). We have rumors that can cost an innocent life. We have people spreading those rumors, safely hidden behind a nickname and a screen, so sure no one will ever find them and they can say the most vile things they want. We have parents who pressure their kids to pursue the money not talent or interest (and finally Seyun snapped). We have disillusioned people telling others that following their dream may not be what they want (like Tejeong reacting to Chanhong's declaration he wants to study creative writing).
But we also have parents like Chanhong parents - not having much, working everyday, but loving each other, teaching their kid to be a wonderful, empathetic and wholesome human being.

I did not copy here the entirety of my ruminations about this drama (13 pages in total), because to do that I would have to talk about the plot in details and that means spoilers. And people fear spoilers more than death itself. So no spoilers - but my sincere advice: watch it. You will not regret it.
And also, since I'm a mean, sneering old hag - the soundtrack is nice. I love the hip-hop song I'm posting below (I jump to it every day) which proves that maybe I not necessarily don't like hip-hop, maybe it's just that one group.

The song:

In other words - probably in my top favorite dramas of 2020 so far!

[2] The legend of their friendship became a paradigm for myriads of later incarnations.

[3] A. Dumas, Three Musketeers. The words are spoken by Athos to D’Artagnan: “Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”