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[MOVIE REVIEW] 'Small Town Rivals' puts comic twist on friendship

2007/03/22 Source

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 Gyoo-seong 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.

Byun Hee-bong ("The Host") plays an evil businessman and TV actress Choi Jung-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

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