Colin describes a ‘Korean Virgin’
With Colin Moore
A good eight or nine couples (and myself) settle into our seats on this lazy Sunday. It’s not lazy by choice though. It’s typhoon night in Pusan, Korea, so things could be busier. I don’t know the name of the storm that’s raging at the moment. I’ve come to my seat from the men’s room. If you drop by, you’ll see my umbrella stuck high out of a wastebasket, the third this season to put up a scrawny fight with rain, and lose. It’s one of those nights where you could use a good laugh. I’m lucky. For a brown haired, brown eyed film-goer in a city of black on black and the odd rainbow dye job, Korean comedy can transcend the language barrier easily. It’s expressive, with theatrical twists of the face and gaping mouths, somewhere between Mel Brooks and a child learning how to mug for the first time. And if I sound critical, I don’t mean to be. As a foreign implant you just tend to notice the differences first.
1984-ish. A soft-faced elementary school student is splayed out on the floor, glarey eyed and dreamily lost in the sultry numb of American pop. Dong-gu (Ryoo Deok-Hwan) mumbles the chorus off in less than broken English, loving it, wanting to be it. Madonna strikes again: the image of a young girl as sex symbol, power player, calling her own shots, giving 10 year olds a temporary pass to sex symbol (as long as the head phones are on, the door closed, Mom too deep into “You Light Up My Life” to realize what her precious wecious is into. He wants to be a girl. Years later, not much has changed. His home life is battered. His parents have split. Mom is due to remarry. Dad’s in the bottle. Friends are few and questionable (from what I understood). The homeroom teacher is cute enough to conjure lullabye fantasies about but not ready to deal with a boy-on-man crush sanely. What’s to do but learn traditional Korean wrestling (ssirum) to earn money for a sex change operation. An almost-man with a plan. Confused? Nahhh.
“Like a Virgin” (from what I understood) is more about presenting obstacles to an adolescent becoming…anything, not specifically other genders. It has many of the coming of age staples we’re familiar with from films in our own countries: the child whose dreams are choaked off from fear of telling Mom and Dad (Dead Poet’s Society), the youth who finds wisdom and bone breaking know-how in sport, whether or not they go the distance (Rocky). But this ain’t no Karate Kid. If Dong-gu figures out anything at all, it’s not from an aging sensai, but from the natural course of adolescent discomfort. Still, there are similarities. Consider the following:
“The Karate Kid”
Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio) not a loser, he’s just a kid that happened to move somewhere that only appreciates country clubs and impeccable hair, California. He’s the New Jersey fish out of water who struggles to adjust in every way. Just another street kid hanging with the pretty people.
“Like a Virgin”
There’s no real change of scenery for Dong-gu, just a change of attitude. All the razzings at school don’t phase him so much. He’s more concerned with making his dream come true. He enters the world of Korean-style sumo on his own accord (from what I understood) and so shows a mature hands-on approach to problem solving.
William Zabka is Johnny, token bad boy. Aside from his promotions gig with Vidal Sassoon, this high schooler only has one mission – to make Daniel’s life a living hell. LaRusso’s not in town two days before Johnny throws a jealous hissy fit, breaks his ex’s (Elizabeth Shue) stereo, and applies a five knuckled house warming gift to Daniel’s face. He’ll pop up a handful of times and show Daniel what it means to hate indiscrimantly. However tragic though, it propels Daniel into the world of self-defense and self-maturation. A partnership is formed. Daniel learns chopsocky while Miyagi finally finds someone to tidy up the place. Thanks Johnny.
In “Virgin” there’s no obvious villain, although a fellow teammate gives him no love until Dong-gu earns it in the ring. Dong-gu’s father presents himself as the closest thing. He’s a hard drinking ex-fighter who’s hobbies include nightly plasterings and losing life’s valuables one at a time. After Dong-gu confronts him in a dress and lipstick, he gives his son a beating that perhaps says as much about homosexuality’s closet status in Korea as it does about his failings as a father.
Message? Always. The director helmed Rocky for god’s sake. Fighting skill looks marvelous at 3:05 on the soccer field, but doing the right thing rules the day. Self control. Self respect. Balance. Hatred and the dark side…bad. We’ve heard it all million times for a reason, but probably for a reason.
At least appears unique for one very important reason: Dong-gu weathers the storm without chopstick fulls of gray-haired wisdom being shoveled down his throat. He dreams. He hopes. He hurts. He crys. He fights. He loses. He applies a fresh coat of lipstick and moves on. Varying degrees of support spirit him through the rough times, most importantly from his mother and teammates, but as in life (yep…my opinion) the people around him come second to the voice in his head. More internal Miyagi at work here.
1984. Sounds of a Cruel Summer courtesy of Bananarama. This film had a soundtrack that could be played by any beach blanket and until 87 probably was. And damn if the goosebumps still don’t enrapture adolescent hopes and dreams during the movie’s themepark date montage. Macchio and Shue making magic.
1984. Madonna at one of many peaks. The song that went number one for six weeks on Billboard opens the film as a hum of broken English from our hero wannabe-heroines lips. A first impression might be “Wow…on top of it all, Madonna now gets credit for gender flipping young Asian boys.” Probably not. More likely was a writer who saw in her what millions of teens and preteens likewise saw in the pop-star: a woman that made you think about sex and sexuality, period. Look at it this way: when the white haired Colonel flashes by your car window, you think about chicken. Doesn’t mean you want a snack pac, but it’s considered.