Lovely Rivals

A new school-year begins, and all the students are lined up in the courtyard, waiting to have their teachers assigned. Suddenly the ceremony is interrupted, when a car races into the parking lot and comes to a screeching halt. Out jumps the fifth grade teacher Ms. Yeo, late as always.

Despite being whimsical, unfocused and at times impossibly giddy, Ms. Yen keeps a tight ship, as her students will soon learn. She frequently punishes them or lectures them on the proper way to behave! In the middle of yet another lecture Ms. Yeo is interrupted when a new student arrives. Her name is Mi-Nam and she quietly takes her seat, seemingly undeterred by Yeo’s yelling and screaming.

Mi-Nam doesn’t quite fit in. She lives with her mother in a small crummy apartment, and she’s often left to her own devices, because her mother works odd hours. She’s desperate for some adult attention, but she does know how to stand her ground, as her fellow students discover when they try tell her how things work, and she kicks their asses.

One morning the principal introduces the new art teacher Mr. Kwon. When Ms. Yeo sees him, it’s love at first sight! This is her dream guy! She must have him! Later, when Mi-Nam tries to talk to Ms. Yeo about her problems at home, she doesn’t notice the little girl, because she only has eyes for the new teacher.

Naturally when Mi-Nam has her first lesson with Kwon, she also falls in love with him. Unlike Yeo, Kwon takes the time to listen to Mi-Nam, and along the way she even manages to get his cellphone number.

But Yeo faces even more competition in her pursuit of Kwon. Most of the female staff, and actually most of the female students as well, seem completely smitten with him, a fact that annoys her so much that she gets slightly overzealous in her attempts to impress him. And while Yeo ties knots on herself trying to get close to Kwon, Mi-Nam manages to get a lot of quality time with him. He paints a picture of her, and even takes her out on a date. Though, in all fairness he thinks they’re just having dinner.

Kwon seems generally oblivious to the feelings he’s stirring up in everyone around him, and even asks Yeo for advice on how to deal with the young student’s affection. Yeo gets more and more preoccupied with her pursuit, and she feels increasingly threatened by Mi-Nam. When Yeo gets really desperate she tries to humiliate Mi-Nam in front of Kwon, but the student turns the table on her teacher.

Soon it’s all-out war between this pretty teacher and her cute student And it’s not gonna be pretty. Or cute. May the best girl win.


Forbidden love has been the subject of many excellent dramas, however it rarely serves as the starting point for a comedy. Perhaps there’s a reason for that. But regardless, here we are. Stuck with a story about a love-triangle between two teachers and a 10-year old student, played for laughs. No reason to panic yet. “Lovely Rivals” stays mostly within acceptable social limits. Mostly. More on this in a moment.

One thing is certain, though. “Lovely Rivals” races out of the gate, and never stops to catch its breath. It’s fast paced, original and just plain funny. It has a crazy cartoonish style that resembles many recent Korean comedies - “He Was Cool” and “Slave Love” for example - where the character’s fantasies become reality, if only for a moment, to let them live out their deepest desires. At some point the catchy 60’s song “I've Told Every Little Star” (as sung by Linda Scott) is introduced, and not only did it put a great big smile on my face, the song also permanently embedded itself in my head. And from then on, the film could do nothing wrong.

Lee Se-young stars as Mi-Nam. She is soooooooooooooo cute (yes, spelled with about 15 o’s). With her curly brown hair and crooked teeth she steals every single scene she’s in, and it doesn’t matter if she’s sad and brooding, or bubbly and full of fire. The young actress displays an impressive emotional versatility, more developed than many actresses three times her age. As her grown-up adversary, Yeom Jung-ah is dealt an inferior hand, since she's called upon to yell and scream like a maniac at regular intervals. But watch the way her expression shifts, in close-up, when a new turn of events once again throws her life into upheaval. Very convincing. Side by side these two are irresistible, and they can easily carry the entire film.

Despite these two great performances “Lovely Rivals” still manage to get into a bit of trouble along the way. It’s a tad disturbing to see the 10-year old girl get further with the teacher than her grown-up rival. When Kwon and Mi-Nam are on their “date”, they even drive to a secluded vantage point, where they park next to numerous other cars filled with couple couples doing, erhm... things. But that’s not the only time the film almost crosses the line. In another scene Yeo checks who among her female students are wearing a bra, by fondling all the girls to see in they have developed breasts! And in a dream-sequence Mr. Kwon vividly illustrate how he expects Mi-Nam to bloom when she grows up in a few years (but this is actually Yeo’s fantasy of what HE must be thinking).

All these scenes are played for laughs, without a hint of a dirty mind, which is the only reason the film keeps the skin on its nose.

It takes “Lovely Rivals” 45 minutes to draw a line in the sand, and get to the “rival” part of the story. From then on it gets increasingly vicious, until the last half hour, when it drops the comedy all together and turns into a drama. Along the way we’re treated to some wonderful well-observed scenes, especially those featuring Mi-Nam, but the peculiar mix of raunchy comedy and serious drama leaves no room for casual viewers, and even those with an affinity for Korean cinema might find this to be a test of their patience.

“Lovely Rivals” ends on a high note, with a scene that cleverly mimics the ending of “Dead Poets Society”, and brings exactly the right kind of closure to the story. The film actually manages to tie up all lose ends, and finds a way to justify most of the things that happen.

It’s tempting to pass some kind of moral judgement on the film, but that would be wrong, because in the end this is just an innocent comedy. It’s crazy, it’s slightly improper, but it’s SO Korean, and I love it.
David Bjerre
February 20, 2005

Original Title
Yeoseonsaeng vs yeojeja
South Korea
Jang Kyu-sung
- Teacher Mr. Kim (2003)
Yeom Jung-ah as Yeo
- The Big Swindle (2004)
- A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
- H (2002)
Lee Se-young as Mi-nam
- When I Turned Nine (2004)
DVD Availability
Available on DVD from YesAsia: