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Like a Virgin

A boy takes on the manly sport of wrestling to help fulfill his desire to be a girl in oddball South Korean meller "Like a Virgin." Pic gives an expansive shove to the rapidly growing permissiveness in a country that was, until very recently, cinematically conservative.

With: Ryu Deok-hwan, Baek Yoon-sik, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi. (Korean, Japanese dialogue)

A boy takes on the manly sport of wrestling to help fulfill his desire to be a girl in oddball South Korean meller “Like a Virgin.” Directing bow of successful scriptwriting team Lee Hae-young and Lee Hae-jun (“Conduct Zero,” “Arahan”), pic gives an expansive shove to the rapidly growing permissiveness in a country that was, until very recently, cinematically conservative. Fest sesh caught was sold out, indicating aud interest, but impending local release looks set for niche biz only. Gay-themed fests will want a look, though those auds may be surprised by the South Korean no-holds-barred approach to violence.

Oh Dong-gu (Ryu Deok-hwan) is a tubby South Korean high school boy who, partially inspired by pop icon Madonna’s “be what you want to be” ethos, makes it his life’s ambition to have a sex change operation.

Dong-gu’s father, is an alcoholic former boxing champion who terrified Dong-gu’s mother right out of the family home, so the schoolboy shuns traditionally masculine activities. However, when a friend reveals there’s a substantial cash prize for winning a ssireum — traditional Korean wrestling — championship, Dong-gu’s eyes light up like his disco mirrorball. Rather than the poorly paid, part-time jobs he has endured, wrestling reps an express train to womanhood.

The established members of the wrestling club are reluctant to befriend Dong-gu, but the relaxed coach (an amiable perf from Baek Yoon-sik, of “The President’s Last Bang”), who gives pep talks from his toilet cubicle, has a hunch the boy could be a real contender.

Dong-gu uses his formidable dancing skills — which he’s picked up by mimicking Madonna — to hone his own wrestling style, and breaks down the initial resistance of his fellow wrestling students.

While scenes in the training tent, and depicting the boy’s adolescent crush on his somewhat effeminate Japanese teacher (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), are peppered with humor, secondary strands about Dong-gu’s miserable home life have a gritty, realistic feel. These tougher elements ground the film in reality, but the helmers usually resort to some kind of fantastic element to escape any blind corners their script has created.

Generally, direction is functional, with flashes of inventiveness.

Ryu is a versatile, charming delight in the lead role, and manages to charm as he walks a tightrope in depicting one of South Korean cinema’s trickiest characterizations in recent memory. Despite the nation’s rep as a homophobic environment, Dong-gu is incredibly at ease with himself. That said, the character isn’t allowed to show much interest in physical sex for a teenage boy of any persuasion. Film themes in South Korea are changing fast … but not that fast, it seems.

Lensing has a low-budget, washed out quality, but all other tech credits are pro.

Like a Virgin

South Korea

Production: A CJ Entertainment presentation of a Sidus, Banzakbanzak production. (International sales: CJ Entertainment, Seoul.) Produced by Tcha Sung-jai, Kim Mi-hee, Kim Moo-ryoung. Executive producer, Kim Joo-sung. Directed, written by Lee Hae-young, Lee Hae-jun.

Crew: Camera (color), Cho Yong-kyu; editor, Nam Na-young; music, Kim Hong-jip; production designer, GoUsag; sound, (Dolby Digital). Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (Korean Cinema Today -- Panorama), Oct. 15, 2006. Running time: 116 MIN.

With: With: Ryu Deok-hwan, Baek Yoon-sik, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi. (Korean, Japanese dialogue)

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