Rivalry is a double-edged sword: It can be a bitter yet healthy pill to accelerate sound competition, or it can cut into a formerly amicable relationship, driving a wedge between friends.
Either way, rivalry is an interesting theme for filmmakers, and director Jang Kyu-sung has attempted to dissect what underlies a bittersweet competition between close friends in his latest flick "Small Town Rivals (Yijanggwa gunsu)."
The Korean title offers a clue about the film`s structure. "Yijang" refers to the head of a small town, a nominal title that does not carry much public authority. "Gunsu," meaning magistrate, is one of the highest positions in a provincial government. Their gap is as wide as, well, the stylistic discrepancy between Cha Seung-won and Yoo Hae-jin.
Cha is widely recognized as Korea`s fashion icon. In fact, he used to be a top-rated fashion model. Yoo does not have such fashionable credentials because his strength lies in comic roles that do not require good looks in most cases.
A logical step would be to cast Cha as the majestic magistrate who competes with a low-ranking town chief played by Yoo. But director Jang seems to have concluded that such obvious role assignment does not fit the movie`s underlying identity as a comedy. Roles are rightly switched: Cha plays Cho Choon-sam, a 37-year-old man who is pushed to assume the leadership of a small town, and Yoo assumes the role of up-and-coming magistrate, Noh Dae-gyu, who responsible for a fairly large rural district.
As expected, the film`s comic relief largely comes from the unlikely images attached to the rival characters. Cho Choon-sam is a typical country bachelor: a tanned face, plain clothes (mostly an unbearably tacky training suit), and a grin that reveals a humble farmer`s innocence. Accepting Cha Seung-won in the rustic role is no easy task for the audience.
Noh Dae-gyu, a no-nonsense politician who cares about his old friend and the district population, does not match Yoo Hae-jin`s previous roles, but it`s not an outrageous miscasting, either.
The confrontation starts when Choon-sam realizes that his friend Dae-gyu is elected as the magistrate of the province in which they have been brought up together. The development is the least expected turn of events for Choon-sam, largely because he never imagined Dae-gyu to step ahead.
The rivalry traces back to their elementary school days when Choon-sam was always class president, and Dae-gyu was the perennial vice president. Dae-gyu even bribed Choon-sam to give up the much-coveted post, but to no avail. Choon-sam`s greedy pursuit of the class presidency was unstoppable.
Choon-sam would not admit his defeat to Dae-gyu. Despite his not-so-spectacular status, Choon-sam makes an effort to mount a counterattack. A turning point comes when Dae-gyu decides to host a nuclear waste dumpsite within the rural province in order to bolster the declining budget.
Choon-sam takes to the street, leading a campaign against the move to host the supposedly dangerous facility in the peaceful county. The two men stage a make-or-break showdown with each other, while a local businessman hatches a secret plan to exploit the conflict to his favor.
Director Jang and Cha Seung-won previously worked together in the 2003 hit comedy "My Teacher, Mr Kim," and their partnership seems solid considering Cha`s willingness to take on a role that conversely exploits his famously fashionable image. Yoo Hae-jin`s calm and gentle image-making as a public servant is also a pleasant surprise.
The only trouble with the comedy is that it`s not a truly 100-percent slapstick comedy. Director Jang has incorporated a political satire into the film, weakening its already fragile comic underpinnings.
Byeon Hee-bong ("The Host") plays an evil businessman and TV actress Choi Jeong-won makes her feature film debut in this Sidus FnH production`s comedy to be distributed by CJ Entertainment.
"Small Town Rivals" will be released nationwide on March 29.
By Yang Sung-jin