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Like a Virgin
Year: 2006
The photogenic cast of Like a Virgin.
Director: Lee Hae-Joon, Lee Hae-Yeong
Writer: Lee Hae-Joon, Lee Hae-Yeong
  Cast: Ryu Deok-Hwan, Baek Yoon-Sik, Lee Sang-Ah, Kim Yoon-Seok, Lee Eon, Park Yeong-Seo, Kim Kyeong-Ik, Oh Yoon-Hong, Lee Jae-Goo, Hong Ki-Joon, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi
  The Skinny: It's strange, it's funny, and it's pretty good. Like a Virgin is one of Korea's strangest comedies in 2006, and while the subject matter may not appeal to everyone, those who can take it will have a great time.
Kevin Ma:

     The feminine male character is usually the comic relief in Korean comedies such as Sex is Zero and My Boss My Hero, but in Lee Hae-Joon and Lee Hae-Yeong's Like a Virgin, he takes the spotlight in the form of Oh Dong-Gu, a gay high school boy who strives to make money for a sex change operation so he can become his idol Madonna. Certainly one of the strangest mainstream comedies of the year from anywhere, Like a Virgin isn't just another "confused teen finds self" type of coming-of-age film, it's also a violent portrait of a decaying family, and even a somewhat affecting sports film.
     In one of the bravest performances of the year, Ryu Deok-Hwan plays Oh Dong-Gu, a chubby high-schooler working low-paying part-time jobs in order to save up the five million won he needs for his operation. However, he has other things to worry about, such as his mother, who ran away from home years ago and now lives a satisfying life peddling products at a theme park; his unpredictably violent father, whose lost boxing career has made him angry at the world and himself; his detached younger brother, who is becoming more and more like his father everyday; his crush for his Japanese teacher (Japanese pop group SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, in a hilarious cameo); and his general unpopularity at school due to his appearance.
     One day, Dong-Gu learns from his best friend (who amusingly takes up a new hobby in every scene he's in) that he can earn a large sum of money towards his operation if he wins at an Ssireum tournament - a form of traditional Korean wrestling not unlike sumo. Supported by his lazy, detached coach (Baek Yoon-Sik), Dong-Gu makes friends with his teammates after showing off his impeccable dancing skills (which mimic female pop acts, of course). However, he still has to prove himself to the ambitious captain Joon Woo.
     In a conservative country such as Korea, homosexuality and transsexuals are not exactly themes that would make a hit film, but the filmmakers walk a tightrope, replacing serious social commentary with oddball humor for an easier approach to the topics. Considering that this is a film featuring a character with an oversensitive armpit, and also boasts a scene where a father beats his son to a bloody pulp, that balance isn't always achieved. But at least the filmmakers always treat their protagonist with respect. Dong-Gu may not always make the best decisions, and not everyone may be that comfortable with his character, but his commitment to his dream and his unabashedly proud approach to it make him an easy character to root for.
     Ryu Deok-Hwan plays no small part in achieving that. Faced with one of the most challenging characters in recent memory, Ryu, who gained 20 kilograms for the role, gives a star-making performance by disappearing completely into Dong-Gu. Ryu could've played Dong-Gu in an over-the-top fashion, succumbing to stereotypes, but Ryu takes a more subtle approach - he cries silently, holding back the tears as his nose trembles; he stutters when he's nervous, but doesn't hold back what he wants to say; and he expresses his joy with a simple smile. It's no wonder that Ryu deservedly got the best newcomer award at the Blue Ribbon Awards; it's definitely a performance worth rewarding. Even Baek Yoon-Sik, who gave an intense performance in the darkly comedic Save the Green Planet, is amusingly laid-back as a coach who spends more time coaching his team in a toilet stall than under the team tent.
     Despite its not-so-mainstream-friendly subject matter, Like a Virgin garnered a respectable gross and much critical acclaim during its theatrical run thanks to a strange sense of humor that's often left for independent cinema (it even features an unusual musical score to highlight its eccentricities). But despite its respectful handling of the protagonist, the filmmakers of Like a Virgin rely a little too much on humor. It may lighten up the proceedings, but it's often done at the expense of the plot; some serious issues raised in the film, such as Dong-Gu's little brother's troubled personality, are completely forgotten and never resolved in order to deliver a happy ending. Even though the filmmakers, established screenwriters of commercial films such as Conduct Zero, Arahan, and Au Revoir UFO, should be applauded for raising issues rarely discussed in Korean society in such a creative fashion, they are just as guilty of raising the issues to merely get a few laughs. Nevertheless, Like a Virgin remains one of the most original comedies to come out of Korea in 2006, and worth checking out for Ryu Deok-Hwan's performance alone. (Kevin Ma 2007)

Availability: DVD (Korea)
Region 3 NTSC
CJ Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Korean Language track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Korean subtitles
Audio commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, trailers, etc.
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen