Dong-goo (played by Ryu Deok-hwan) is a pudgy yet strong teenage boy who idolizes Madonna and eagerly looks forward to the day when he's able to scrape enough money together to afford gender reassignment surgery. Dong-goo discovers that there's quite a bit of scholarship money to be had by competing in traditional Korean wrestling (씨름), which involves participants trying to lift each other up by the belt and knocking them down to the ground. Hm, yes, if nothing else "Like A Virgin" certainly gets points for its rather creative premise.
In reality all of this offbeat characterization and backdrop is all in service to a fairly standard inspirational sports narrative. I was actually fairly impressed that "Like A Virgin" manages to cram so many disparate elements into the narrative without it ever feeling like a comical self-parody. Dong-goo's gay daydreams, while obviously strange in their own way, aren't really that different functionally from what most teenage boys fantasize about in school.
Yet oddly enough, Dong-goo does not fetishize his teammates on the traditional Korean wrestling team even though they spend a disproportionate amount of time wandering around shirtless. That's because Dong-goo, in his (her?) own way of thinking, does not consider that particular body type to be exceptionally attractive. The restraint "Like A Virgin" shows with Dong-goo's sexuality is rather admirable, because it lets his more interesting character traits take prominence.
Namely his sense of unwarranted sense of optimism. Dong-goo is such a trooper it's often easy to forget that he's being bullied at school and has a rather questionable home life. The first we really get to see of Dong-goo's mother is at the amusement park where she works. Incidentally, "Like A Virgin" takes place in Incheon. We can tell because a lot of the scenes take place at local Incheon monuments- not that this is very easy to tell unless you know what to look for.
Which brings me to the main flaw of "Like A Virgin", if it really makes sense to call it that. The movie is very...normal. While some may consider the backdrop to be groundbreaking simply because the protagonist is transexual, once this layer is stripped away, there really isn't anything that "Like A Virgin" does differently than the typical sport-centered coming of age story. The jokes, centered around the disparity between Dong-goo's physical appearance and his peculiar choice of hobbies, are just jokes. They're reasonably amusing ones, not really laugh out loud jokes, but serviceable nonetheless.
But it does serve to put me in a bit of a dilemma. As standard mainstream fare, "Like A Virgin" is quite good- a triumph of the genre formula because the strengths shine for all the production team's more creative flourishes. Yet as a trans film, well, Dong-goo's bullying over being trans is presented about the same way another coming of age sports movie might have its protagonist bullied for being short. Is that politically incorrect? I really don't know- so watch "Like A Virgin" because you like offbeat sports films. Not for the politics.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Like a Virgin" + DVD Giveaway"
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
[HanCinema's Film Review] "A Cruel Attendance" + DVD Giveaway
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