Sad situation makes an uplifting taleThere are films that make you feel shame for laughing at the plot’s dull humor; others make you proud even after you cry. When the director of “Like a Virgin” confesses in the film’s special edition with his hand over his heart that he was proud the film was his debut work ― not because the film was well made, but because it was the type of film he always wanted to make ― you’re almost jealous that you don’t have the same gift of depicting human dignity with such poignancy and warmth as he did.
To put it simply, “Like a Virgin” is a beautiful film. It’s funny, decent and helplessly optimistic about all the things in life we want to avoid, whether they be poverty, alienation or violence.
The film is the story of a fat teenage boy named Dong-gu (Ryu Deok-hwan), who firmly believes that he is a girl. His hope is to undergo a sex operation to become a “real” woman and date his Japanese teacher (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) one day. But first he needs the approval of his abusive father, a former boxer, who kills time drinking and beating people up, and his young mother (Lee Sang-ah), who barely makes her living as a parade girl at a theme park, blowing bubbles at the visitors. To save money for his operation, Dong-gu joins a school ssireum club, which assures winning players of a prize purse of 5 million won ($5,445).
The stark contrast of the film’s two subjects, wrestling and Madonna ― the boy’s idol ― serve as an ideal metaphor of Dong-gu’s reality and fantasy. At the same time they stand as his present and future, and of course, his longing for feminine identity despite his male body. Strangely, in this film the two subjects naturally reconcile as if they were meant to be.
Madonna seems appropriate for the boy’s transcendent life, as she stands as an icon of metamorphosis. But it’s also evident in the film’s interview of its two directors, Lee Hae-young and Lee Hae-jun (they are not brothers as is often thought) in the DVD supplement that they have made extra efforts to depict the other players of Dong-gu’s wrestling team as something beyond masculine cliches, leaving us a heartfelt lesson that it is never simple to fully define who we are.
The film’s casting deserves praise as well. Ryu, as Dong-gu, conveys the indifferent innocence of a young boy, but also manages to depict the fragile nerves of a vulnerable girl. Lee Sang-Ah, playing his young mother, who in real life went from being a glamorous teenage actress to the host of a home shopping show after undergoing turmoil in her personal life, evokes deep sympathy just by her presence onscreen when she tells her son in a cramped basement suite over dinner, “Your mother was once very pretty.”
Indeed the film’s optimism would not have been so effective if it had avoided the sadness, pity and melancholy of life that the characters had embraced.
The film’s ending is cheerful yet alarming, as it signals a mix of hope and trials still to come in Dong-gu’s life.
But at least we see him smiling on screen. So even if he made the wrong decision, his is not a losing game.
by Park Soo-mee