What is it that draws us time and again to narratives following socially-awkward men who are trying to lose their virginity? My first thought was that these provide a vicarious thrill for male cinema-goers but actually, these films tend to draw crowds across the gender divide. Judd Apatow recognized this and harnessed the phenomenon into global hits with The 40 Year-Old Virgin
(surely one of the most self-explanatory film titles of all time) and Superbad
, which were equally successful with men and women when they were released.
Super Virgin, which had it's world premiere at this year's PiFan, is a Korean ultra low-budget film about the 30-year-old Won Jun, who is idling away his life in Incheon with his equally directionless friends. He's portly, awkward and sports some unbecoming spectacles, in short he's a virgin and there doesn't seem to be much hope for him. A cute girl moves to town and he falls for her but what can he do? By chance, he is abducted by a scientist who wants him to test ride his new invention. This scientist has created a sex avatar that he claims has been tweaked to instantly attract every woman who will cross his path. Following a long night of drinking and a bout of despondency, Won Jun agrees to the experiment and it works like a charm. But when he uses his new avatar to woo the girl he likes things become complicated, as ironically he can no longer be a match for himself.
The film is a flat-out comedy but not of the raunchy variety, as one might expect from this kind of story. Though not sentimental or saccharine, Super Virgin is full of heart and the greatest pleasure in viewing it is how easy it is to get lost in it. Much of this boils down to the low-budget aesthetic, which, true or not, intimates some form of earnest realism. Sure the premise is ridiculous, but the locations and the actors (mostly crew members it seems) feel real and are easy to engage with.
Of all the PiFan screenings I went to this year (to be fair far too few), this one had by far the best audience reaction. The language barrier did rear its head from time to time and it was a little frustrating not to be able to take part in the auditorium's raucous laughter as everyone collectively lost themselves in a moment but thankfully these instances were few and far between.
Aside from being a quirky, high-concept and well-rendered romcom, Super Virgin also acts as a commentary for the plight of youth in modern Korea. Won Jun, as a heavy drinker and a perpetual loaf, may not deserve our outright sympathy for his lack of career options but it's hard to see how else he could be leading his life. By the time he is faced with the inevitable decision of whether or not he should permanently transfer to his sex avatar, his dilemma has become all too real. His status, combined with his appearance, effectively eliminate his chances with the girl he loves. Furthermore, besides from his parents and his best friend, there isn't much for him to leave behind.
Contemporary Korea has become fixated on aesthetics: to be a Seoulite these days means one must be an ardent consumer. The rampant plastic surgery, the towering Lotte department stores replete with Ralph Lauren polos and the inexhaustible supply of iced café lattes in any of the city's thousands of air-conditioned cafes, are requisite staples of local urban life. The commodification of Korea and its increasing homogeneity lead to pressing questions regarding the loss of identity and perhaps of priorities as well. In a sense Won Jun is clinging onto a former and more traditional version of life in Korea. Yes, drinking is part of it but so is constant contact with those close to him, be it swinging lanterns at night in the open air with his best friend or sharing a silent dinner and soundless conversation with his parents (in one of the film's most uproarious sequences).
Is it worth giving it all up for a gym-toned physique, designer threads and all the trappings that go with a being an attractive, socially-mobile male? The prospect of his body transfer also comes with a relationship with the girl of his dreams but since that would be based on a lie, how much is it worth? Then again how can we measure worth in these times? Can the value of our life be measured by the amount of zeroes on our accumulated receipts? How does on quantify the difference between possession and fulfillment?
Back Seung-kee's film may not answer these questions but it does provide plenty of food for thought. What seems like an unassuming low-budget sex comedy at first glance turns into so much more by its final reel. Super Virgin
walked away with a well-deserved accolade for Best Korean Independent Film at this year's PiFan and I hope it will be afforded an opportunity to be exposed to a much wider audience. A rare treat and exactly the kind of gem you hope to discover at a film festival.
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