Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).
(By Connor McMorran)
Two childhood friends have grown up to be very different people. Choon-sam, despite being popular at high school, has amounted to very little in life and has reluctantly accepted the position of village chief. On the other hand, Dae-gyu, who was something of an outsider at school, has just been elected as the local magistrate. As these two reunite to fix aspects of Choon-sam’s village, their memories of various wrong-doings, coupled with manipulation from outside sources, causes them to become rivals. They begin a game of one-upmanship, both of them too proud to admit defeat. This all comes to a head in the third act of the film, and the two come to blows. Their battle carries a sense of tragedy, as they have both been corrupted to the point of betraying their closest childhood friend.
This sequence of events, and this climactic battle, would not be out of place within a vengeance film. After all, it presents just the right amount of spectacle and pathos to allow audiences to both enjoy and contemplate on the act of vengeance. It is a confrontation which, like most South Korean vengeance films, sits firmly in the grey area of ethics. There is no clear right and wrong, just a whirlwind of emotions and motivations from both sides. Yet, this narrative is not some dark thriller, but rather can be found in Jang Gyu-sung’s comedy Small Town Rivals. However, that such a narrative can exist outside of its usual genre framework, without being a parody, certainly suggests something about how vengeance cinema has become, rather unfortunately, synonymous with South Korean film in general.
At its heart, vengeance is a narrative tool which allows for conflict. To have a vengeance narrative you must first have a character feel that they are been wronged in some way. Kidnappings, murder and cheating spouses all factor heavily in the expected motivations for vengeance, but Small Town Rivals instead goes for something much lighter. Shown through flashback, we witness Choon-sam bribing Dae-gyu with Choco-Pies so that he may win the class president election. Though Dae-gyu takes the bribe, he still wins the election. This central wrongdoing is how Choon-sam explains away all his failures in life; he hasn’t amounted to anything because he was not elected class president. Thus, when he hears that Dae-gyu has now been elected local magistrate, Choon-sam is forced to face his failures once again. However, unable to face his own lack of responsibility he decides to exact vengeance upon Dae-gyu.
Memory is vitally important to the central narrative of this film, and it can also be seen as central to a large part of vengeance cinema in general. After all, vengeance is usually something which occurs as a result of a wrongdoing in the past. Even a film like The Man From Nowhere, which focuses on a kidnapping scenario in the present time, features a character who is wounded and arguably defined by memory and past events. Small Town Rivals puts forward the idea that memory is not, and should not be seen as, infallible. It acknowledges that memory is an entirely subjective thing, not able to fully encompass a full understanding of the specific event being remembered. It is filtered through the person who experiences it, and the same event could be seen in an entirely different manner from someone else’s perspective. Choon-sam’s memory of Dae-gyu’s betrayal is entirely subjective, choosing to blame Dae-gyu without acknowledging his own attempt to circumvent responsibility through bribery. Likewise, Dae-gyu’s feelings of resentment for Choon-sam emerge through memories and jealousy of Choon-sam’s popularity with women.
As such, Choon-sam and Dae-gyu are rivals in the most childish sense of the word. This means that their interactions are ultimately reduced to masculine boasting and petulant actions and the film portrays this in some fun ways. One scene in particular has Choon-sam imagine how things would be if he was magistrate and Dae-gyu was village chief. Again, the film presents this through Choon-sam’s subjective filter and so not only is Choon-sam immaculately dressed, confident and cool, but Dae-gyu is entirely subservient to him. Awakening from this daydream, the film jokes around with representing power balances on screen.
It’s obvious from the above screen capture that Choon-sam carries the physical dominance within the shot; the framing makes him tower above Dae-gyu. However, the lack of confidence in his pose undermines this physical dominance; allowing Dae-gyu to carry the power in the scene.
Following this, Dae-gyu begins to take physical control over the shot, arriving at the same level as Choon-sam and further re-enforcing his dominance through smart dress and an unflinching gaze. Choon-sam, having now lost the physical high-ground is shown in an even weaker posture, and is forced to busy himself in order to remain visually interesting.
Finally, the childish act of ignorance displayed by Choon-sam goes some way to reinforcing his masculinity. In smoking, he also straightens his posture and recovers some degree of dominance. Ultimately, the scene ends at a stalemate achieved through Choon-sam’s childish actions and deflection of responsibility.
Though both Choon-sam and Dae-gyu harbour resentment of one another through their childhood memories, it is ultimately society which forces them to heighten their rivalry. Choon-sam is exploited by those wishing to remove Dae-gyu from power, and Dae-gyu in his stubbornness responds to every challenged thrown at him. It is only when such challenges affect Dae-gyu’s family that Choon-sam comes to realise how easily he has been manipulated. With this realisation also comes various memories from both Choon-sam and Dae-gyu, in which they remember the times that they helped one another. Again, these memories are subjective, but as they are positive rather than negative they work to reverse the damage done by remembering the bad times of the past.
One thing that exploring vengeance in a different genre allows is the freedom to look at different avenues for closure. Vengeance films, especially South Korean ones that are so heavily inspired by Hong Kong cinema, always seem to punish both the protagonist and antagonist for their actions. As such, protagonists are just as unlikely as the antagonist to make it out alive in the final showdown. Exploring vengeance in a lighter setting allows for an altogether lighter ending, such as one of reconciliation. The climactic battle described at the start of this article is ultimately a way for true emotions to finally come out and for old friends to realise the friendship they once had. Their battle is short lived and begins their road to reconciliation, bringing with it a new maturity for both the characters.
Again, the film uses familiar aspects of vengeance cinema to toy with audience expectations and in doing so depicts the act of reconciliation in a rather interesting way.
Setting the scene at the school allows the act of reconciliation to occur at the place where such a petty rivalry first began. The characters are posed in such a way that creates tension or, at the very least, a sense of uncertainty. Though Choon-sam’s hand position is clearly docile from the audience’s perspective, Dae-gyu is unable to see exactly what Choon-sam may or may not be hiding behind his back.
By talking on the phone, Dae-gyu ignores Choon-sam, mirroring Choon-sam’s actions in the earlier scene discussed above. This action increases the tension of the scene; as the audience witnessed them fight just the night before, there is a clear possibility such actions could occur again.
Dae-gyu quickly resolves the tension through showing that he was, in fact, just pretending to talk on the phone. In his hand he holds a Choco-Pie, the very thing Choon-sam used as a bribe in the past. With this reveal, Dae-gyu is both acknowledging and apologising for his betrayal, whilst at the same time highlighting the pointlessness over remaining so bitter about such a childish action.
Depicted against the school and framed by the goal posts of the school playground, Choon-sam and Dae-gyu renew their friendship. For the first time in the film, their poses are comfortable and familiar and any sense of bravado is gone.
Such an ending is not often allowed to the wounded warriors of the vengeance thriller or action film. Their conclusion is either the success of failure to achieve vengeance, whereas a film like Small Town Rivals allows for the rejection of such a conclusion. Choon-sam and Dae-gyu ultimately team up to fight against those who manipulated them and though they are unsuccessful, their renewed friendship is clearly the main resolution of the narrative. While the stakes are nowhere near as high or as serious as in something like I Saw the Devil, The Housemaid or even Kick the Moon, we should not overlook the ability for different genres to offer interesting ways of interpreting narrative concepts. The desire for vengeance is an everyday human emotion, and it comes in various degrees – from small things like wishing someone who bothers you at work would fail or hoping an irresponsible driver’s car breaks down, to the extremes of retaliation over kidnapping or murder. As such, by placing a vengeance narrative into different genres, we can explore the lesser aspects of vengeance, the petty squabbles and the petulant nonsense we all get caught up in every now and then. Small Town Rivals, through using the comedy genre, allows the small irritations in life to take centre stage.
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