A Muse (EunGyo)

Korea (2012) Dir. Ji-woo Jung

Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il) is a respected poet, now seventy years old and living peacefully in the countryside. His thirty-something assistant, Seo Ji-woo (Kim Mu-yeol), has scored a best seller with his first novel and it is after returning from a publishing do that they find high school girl, Han Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun) asleep on a chair on the porch.

Rather than get angry, Jeok-yo offers Eun-gyo a cleaning job which she readily accepts. At first Jeok-yo is bemused by Eun-gyo’s youthful exuberance but soon he is fantasising about her as he begins to recapture some of the verve of his lost youth. Ji-woo however is unhappy and appalled about this arrangement and plans a subtle course of revenge by stealing a manuscript Jeok-yo had written about his fantasies of Eun-gyo.

The first thing that needs to be made clear is that despite any superficial allusions A Muse isn’t a steamy Lolita-esque tale of erotica although there are a couple of – in this writer’s opinion – unnecessary albeit somewhat congruent sex scenes, that are very explicit by Korean standards, which caused an uproar domestically given the nature of the plot. Instead this is a rather touching and sensitively handled essay on loneliness, age, forbidden relationships, personal esteem and poetry, based on the controversial novella Eun-gyo by Park Bum-Shin.

We are not given an explanation as to why Eun-gyo chose to invade Jeok-yo’s garden other than she always wanted to sit in a porch chair like his. When she begins her cleaning duties, her presence slowly revitalises the old man’s capacity for impure thoughts towards the opposite gender, something he is just as surprised at as we are.

The ambiguity of the situation lies with Eun-gyo’s intentions, whether she is deliberately leading him on or is oblivious to his tacit leering. A scene later on where Eun-gyo ask to have her school blouse tighten and her skirt hemline lifted suggests the former but answers are still not forthcoming.

It could of course literally be a case of two lonely people enjoying each other’s company with the perky teen affectionately calling her septuagenarian admirer “Grandpa”. Either way Ji-woo, who looks upon Jeok-yo as a father figure, tries to remove this new temptation from his mentor’s life. Naturally Eun-gyo fights her corner, rubbing salt in the wounds by introducing the old man to new experiences he hitherto shunned under Ji-woo’s watch.

This usurping of roles causes many arguments until Ji-woo finds a short story, Jeok-yo’s first piece of writing in a long time, called Eun-gyo detailing the erotic visions the old man had about his teen temptress. Realising the worth of this work, Ji-woo steals the manuscript and has it published under his name, the first step in wrecking the three relationships of this tale.

Because the sex is all in Jeok-yo’s aging mind one could be forgiving about the explicit scenes, which sees debutant actress Kim Go-eun follow in the footsteps of Chinese actress Tang Wei by (almost literally) giving her all in her first ever role and causing a furore in the process. Kim was twenty-one at the time of filming – before your concerns go to far – yet has the babyface looks, gamine body and frankly impressive talent to convince us all she is much younger.

With no credits to her name this is a star making performance right out the gate for Kim, and hopefully the first of many. In this film, she is the centrifugal source of energy that hits the quiet bucolic life of master and student like a hurricane, netting the pair – and the audience – in her twister of unwitting sexuality and her effervescent personality. Her motives are undefined until the final act, which still remain ambiguous, bringing with it an almost predictable but still surprising twist leading to a tragic denouement.

For our two smitten men, they are much easier to read, at least Jeok-yo is initially, showing signs of denial until the increasing moments of innocent intimacy prove too much he is imaging himself as a young man getting funky with Eun-gyo. These illusions explain the casting of thirty seven year-old Park Hae-il as the 70 year-old Jeok-yo, who is made up to look older, pretty much pulling it off, relying on his years of experience before the camera to deliver a nuanced and believable account of an old man yearning to be young again.

The third side of this triangle is Ji-woon, a multi-layered character whose initial displeasure at Eun-gyo also transforms a meek man into a beast of a different nature. Kim Mu-yeol keeps his character on the right side of stuffy while allowing for room for subtle growth as his jealousy becomes an overwhelming concern for him, while being able to make us believe we should also take his hurt feelings into account while observing his duplicitous actions.

Even with the raunchy scenes – depicted in all their soft focus and rather tender glory – director Ji-woo Jung is canny enough to not allow this to dictate the tone and central appeal of the film, remembering there is an important story being told.

He does this by showing us three different yet unknowingly similar characters, allows them to grow and depicts the human and emotional side of their complex relationships. He rather poetically explores the themes of age and how we can still be young at heart regardless of the number of years we have under our belts, leaving us with a final scene to wrap everything up with a lachrymose inducing bow.

It’s more than likely that some people will be drawn to A Muse purely because of the sexual content but that would be doing it a great disservice. Behind this tawdry promise lies a film that is reaffirming, heartfelt and deeply touching, rewarding us with less schmaltz and more nutrition for our sensitive sides.