It is only a coincidence that I watched the KBS miniseries How to Buy a Friend (계약우정) after just finishing Extracurricular and At Eighteen. Three series in a row addressing the unfortunate reality of school violence and the lack of resources and care for mental health, especially for youth.
How to Buy a Friend, at just eight half-hour episodes, is able to present a different point of view from the two aforementioned series. And it is able to offer a different, yet equally important message.
The series centers on regular high school student Park Chan Hong (Lee Sin Young) who gets swept up in the mystery surrounding the suicide of a student, Seo Jung, a year ago. Seo Jung’s boyfriend Heo Don Hyuk offers to help protect Chan Hong from a violent bully if Chan Hong can help remember information from the day of his girlfriend’s death.
Along with a few other supporting characters, they are able to uncover the multi-layered truth about Seo Jung. There is a domino effect caused by different characters stemming from everything from mental health, high school jealousy, sex trafficking and corruption.
Ultimately, the series offers up several effective illustrations of friendship and connections. We are introduced to characters who suffer from various struggles and hardships alone.
And that includes both Chan Hong and Don Hyuk. With them specifically, their relationship begins with a contract. They make a deal to help each other. Yet that contractual relationship leads to a real friendship that not only uncovers the truth about a potential crime, but also reveals aspects of their personalities that they have hidden from the world.
In allowing other people into their lives and even asking for help when they needed it, they find they are able to overcome struggles, find focus and move forward.
The series makes it clear that reaching out to someone (and that goes both ways) is a huge, but important first step to getting and providing help and support. And the series does this in a non-condescending way. Something that not all series or films are able to do.
Often the home of some of the best, most genre-bending and envelope-pushing storytelling on Korean television (especially free TV), the KBS Drama Special is always essential viewing for a wide variety of stories.
How to Buy a Friend is very much a miniseries in the vein of the excellent KBS Drama Special banner. Beautiful cinematography and unique direction not seen on regular broadcast television dramas accentuate the alternating lighter and heavier moments in the series. The series also maintains a steady tonal balance as it shifts between violent scenes, cute, romantic scenes and deeper, emotional scenes.
While there is certainly potential for the series to have been longer, it does well in what is essentially a four-hour film. In fact, a tighter ~2 hour film could have been absolutely perfect. But the series as it is does a strong job at what it sets out to do.
The cast is strong, but the spotlight is definitely on Lee Sin Young and Shin Seung Ho.
Lee Sin Young gained a lot of attention as the handsome North Korean soldier Kwang Beom on the excellent Crash Landing on You earlier this year. He gets an opportunity to showcase a wider range here in a character that is much more well-rounded than his aforementioned breakout role.
As Chan Hong, Lee Sin Young first introduces us to a timid teenager who just hopes to mind his own business and get through school. He has a loving and supporting family, but Chan Hong still has trouble being more open at home and at school. Over the course of the series, we see Chan Hong’s evolution to become a more confident young man. And Lee Sin Young is able to portray that subtle, but steady growth. He certainly made his case for more leading roles in the future.
Shin Seung Ho, fresh from (for me) At Eighteen, plays a similar character from his breakout role in that series as well as his supporting role in Love Alarm. Though getting much meatier material in At Eighteen, Shin Seung Ho is still able to show what he is capable of here. As Don Hyuk is also a character that is introduced with a rough first impression, Shin Seung Ho effortlessly portrays the peeling back of his character’s layers in a way that feels natural and not forced. Also proving his case for more lead roles in the future, Shin Seung Ho’s strong, charismatic presence is unmistakable.
Overall, How to Buy a Friend is a quick, cinematic series takes a familiar premise and offers up a fresh, yet just as important and thought-provoking message.