Tender wrestler fights for a sex change in filmDespite its directors’ concerns about the “social tremors” their film might cause when released, the response on the night of the preview of “Like a Virgin” was in fact quite warm.
The film deals with what would usually be considered an arthouse topic in Korea and something producers wanting to achieve commercial success would avoid due to its sensitive nature. The film tells the story of a transsexual youth, who its directors ― Lee Hae-yeong and Lee Hae-jun (no relation) ― depict as a “nice normal guy,” while the “straight” characters in the movie appear unnatural.
“Although we were afraid the story could offend some people, we tried to make it pleasant and fun,” Lee Hae-yeong said. “I hope the audience will view it that way.”
They did, at least at the preview.
Oh Dong-gu (played by Ryu Deok-hwan) is an overweight teenage boy who grows up torn between a violent alcoholic father and a mother who gave birth to him while still in high school. His only method of escape is listening to the Madonna song “Like a Virgin,” which he likes to hum along with. When Oh is alone, he puts on make-up, tries on tight dresses and preens happily in front of a mirror. He is also madly in love with his male Japanese school teacher and fantasizes in class about dating the older man.
Oh tells his best (and only) friend that his dream is to have a sex-change operation, and that he has to save “only 5 million won ($5,200)” to have enough money.
That’s when he sees an ad for a national tournament for ssireum, traditional Korean wrestling, for high school students. The prize? Five million won.
Oh decides to join the school’s ssireum team, but the other members are big, strong and very manly, the three things he most despises. But to become a woman, he tells himself, he will endure anything.
He is so embarrassed about his body that he covers his nipples with Band-Aids and changes his clothes in the bathroom. He dyes his uniform lavender because he thinks the color is prettier than the original red. He practices every day and, miraculously, turns out to be a natural-born wrestler.
Despite the film’s controversial subject matter, at its heart it is a coming-of-age story about a boy overcoming his weaknesses and learning to understand his father, who used to beat his mother every day.
The boy’s best friend is the typical confused teenager of cinema, who doesn’t know what he wants to do after graduation, but he envies Oh, who “at least knows what he wants and is working for it.”
The film, obviously, approaches the issue of gender sympathetically. Oh’s mother assures him that she respects his decision to change his sex and even his abusive father does no more than look away so he can pretend not to see that his son is wearing lipstick.
The two directors said they wanted to deliver a strong message that transgender people should be recognized as ordinary human beings. That message comes through clearly, with little risk of offending anyone.
The film, rated for viewers 15 years and older, opens on Aug. 31.
by Lee Min-a, Sylvia Kim