A potential love triangle blossoms into a touching buddy pic in school-set comedy “Lovely Rivals.” Film scored a healthy 1 million admissions on local release last November and should perform well in other Asian territories. In the West, it’s likeliest chances are as remake material.
On their first day back at primary school, the 12-year-olds are distraught to discover their new den mother is the notoriously tough Yeo Mi-ok (Yeom Jeong-ah). While Yeo is inflicting collective punishment for the first indiscretion she sees, new kid on the block Go Mi-nam (Lee Se-yeong) walks in late. Infuriated, Yeo escalates group punishment, and battle lines are drawn between the two protags as per pic’s Korean title (literally, “Female Teacher vs. Female Student”).
Feisty Mi-nam holds her own, but the titular combat intensifies when new stud muffin art teacher Gweon (Lee Ji-hun) mesmerizes the school’s female population. Twist is that the young girl has a much more mature attitude than the woman who is supposed to be guiding her from crayons to perfume. While Yeo flirts to get Gweon’s attention, diminutive Mi-nam simply asks for his phone number.
Western auds troubled by perceived underage sexuality in other Korean comedies, like “My Little Bride,” may find a later scene, where Gweon strokes Mi-nam’s hair and pats her derriere, a tad confrontational. Still, the savvy script is well-paced and keeps the substantial laffs rolling. Dramatic gear-change to bring the two rivals together is handled smoothly.
Yeom, the brutal step mom in K-horror “A Tale of Two Sisters,” surprises here with her strong comic timing; the wee Lee Se-yeong is aces as the pint-sized girl in fearless search of love. As school hunk Gweon, Lee Ji-hun is functional.
Inventive use is made of split screen, and production values are up to the usual high standards of South Korean mainstream product.