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Original Title:
Cheonhajangsa madonna

South Korea 2006

Comedy, Drama

Lee Hae-jun
Lee Hae-yeong

Ryu Deok-Hwan
Kim Yoon-Seok
Lee Sang-Ah
Moon Se-yoon
Lee Eon
Baek Yoon-sik

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Like a Virgin

Story: Oh Dong-gu (Ryu Deok-hwan) is a pudgy boy who has only one dream. He wants to be like his idol Madonna. Of course, this also means that he doesn't feel good in his body and so Dong-gu decides to do several part-time jobs in order to earn the money for a sex reversal. His schoolmates make fun of Dong-gu and the teacher he is in love with doesn't return his feelings. Adding to that, the boy's father is a former boxer who had to retire from the sport because of an injury and since then seeks consolation in alcohol and beats his children every now and then. His mother has already fled from this life years ago and is now leading her own life.
One day Dong-gu hears of a Ssireum-contest, a Korean kind of wrestling similar to sumo, and he thinks about participating as he could pay his operation with the prize money. Surprisingly, it turns out that he even has some great talent when it comes to this sport. His rather odd coach (Baek Yoon-shik) supports him and his new buddies in the team also teach him what he needs to know for him to finally fulfill his dream.

Review: It would be just natural to expect a sport film here in which a guy growing up finds his place in the world through sports and learns to cope with winning and losing to eventually fulfill his dream during the grande finale. However, "Like a Virgin" goes into a little bit different direction and therefore can be a positive surprise. Sports doesn't really stand in the focus, in fact it is actually more of a means to an end and is in balance with the personal drama of the movie in a very pleasent way. So this is no typical sport movie we get to see, which also makes it easier accessable for the viewers who aren't into Korean wrestling. Anyway, even more important is that in the movie's center stands a Korean taboo topic - transsexuality - which is presented in a very funny and lighthearted fashion, yet also doesn't neglect the drama and thus delivers a surprisingly well working genre mix, which in the end wants mainly to be seen as a comedy, though.

"Like a Virgin" most of all works out so well because of its lead actor Ryu Deok-hwan ("Welcome to Dongmakgol"). His portrayal is extremely brave and he actually manages to make the viewer believe that he is born in the wrong body. That is because it certainly isn't normal that a man can dance as well as he does. Not only does he pursue his hobby at any possible time, no, even his wrestling comrades are fascinated by it. One of them even wants Dongu-gu to teach him how to dance which leads to a great scene in which the two are having a discussion while at the same time performaning a typical Korean (feminine!) popstar choreography, which really is something for the eye!
Still, Dong-gu is somewhat of a strange guy and it could have easily happened that we couldn't get along with his peculiarities. But Ryu Deok-hwan bestows the right heart upon his character so that we can root for him at all times.

What is commendable is the fact that the movie doesn't make any wrong compromises. It succeeds in being a drama at times without making this a foreign body in the comedy. The easy nature of the film also carries the movie over the more heavy parts of it. Especially Dong-gu's father (fantastically played by "The Chaser"-star Kim Yoon-seok) has to be mentioned. He has his very own story why he became the man he is today and "Like a Virgin" also doesn't miss touching the family problems every now and then. The father is especially detestable. This becomes particularly apparent in one scene in which he downright beats up his own son. Somehow it may shine through that in a way he loves his child, but this doesn't change the fact that we can't forgive him how he treats him. Moreover, he seemingly successfully seals out that his son feels entrapped in his masculine body. But Dong-gu's mother also gets some appropriable room in the movie. She knows that she was selfish when she just left her family like that and her son also hates her for that, but that this isn't really the case can be seen in the moments they share. She is also more open-minded concerning the identity problems of her son.

Most of the time these identity problems are carried with a certain amount of humor. There are some really funny scenes that work situational-wise, especially those with his wrestling comrades who can also win you over in no time. The only problem is that some characters are drawn a bit too caricatural. Here, the fantastic Baek Yoon-shik ("Save the Green Planet") comes to mind, whose character is incredibly lazy and spends most of his time on the toilet. What's that supposed to mean? Baek somehow feels out of place. Working out better is Dong-gu's friend who has always a new aim in life when they meet. As it is with many at his age he is looking for his own dream, yet can't find it as easily as Dong-gu. Another disturbing aspect among the funny insertions, though, is the love story with the Japanese teacher, played by Japanese SMAP pop group member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi. In order to underline Dong-gu's homosexuality this worshipping of the teacher may serve a certain purpose, but qualitywise the dream sequences with the annoying music cannot work on the same level as the rest of the film.

Naturally, Korean wrestling also gets its share of onscreen time. Even though there isn't your usual pressure to win at all costs, not even during the finale. In fact, the movie lacks a real villian and so in the end two individuals have to face each other who would both deserve to win, even though we would be more happy for one of them than the other. As the viewer you get to learn something about Ssireum - and those who have already tried something like wrestling know how incredibly debilitating this can be, despite looking rather unspectacular - and it has to be commended once more that the wrestling never is in the movie's focus but instead supports the story. A story that is full of ups and downs, that leads you trough different emotions, but leaves the viewer with a content smile in the end. Director Lee Hae-jun (and Lee Hae-yeong) already proves his talent of telling extraordinary stories here which he should even refine with his "Castaway on the Moon" a few years later.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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