Drama, Films, Reviews, South Korea

Eun-gyo (aka A Muse)

Despite the impression you might have been given, a tender vision of the loss of youth…

Park Hae-il (War Of The Arrows, End Of Animal, Memories Of Murder, The Host) plays Lee Jeok-yo, a celebrated poet who becomes obsessed with a schoolgirl, Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun) hired to clean for him around the house. His fantasies inspire the most notable work of writing he’s completed in a while, but this lies languishing in a drawer until discovered by his student and genre novelist Seo Ji-woo (Kim Mu-yeol, War Of The Arrows, Doomsday Book).

Seo too becomes fixated on Eun-gyo, and as much as he envies his mentors talent, Lee envies a youth that he can never get back…

An adaptation of Park Bum-shin’s novel, Eun-gyo, a story about a 70-year-old having an affair with a schoolgirl, much of the films controversy is understandable – except that in reality, that affair doesn’t happen! Despite whatever misleading summaries you might read in across the web…

Indeed, director Jung Ji-woo (Happy End, Modern Boy) seems set on distancing us from any unpleasantness that may have been part of the original novel. The sex scene between Lee and Eun-gyo is a fantasy, with Lee imagining himself as a much younger man so that the audience could, as Jung has put it many times, experience his sense of loss on waking up an old man again.

True, but more candidly he told us in the group interview with him shortly before the screening at the London Film Festival, he told us that one of the other reasons he cast Park in the role of a 70-year-old was he wanted to lesson audiences disgust at seeing an older man ogle such a younger lady. Though in reality, the thought of any grown man ogling a minor – especially as we get to experience it from his perspective – is more than a little unsettling. An aspect played out later in Seo’s growing obsession with Eun-gyo. (Notably in the film Eun-gyo’s age seems deliberately vague.)

It’s in the delicateness of much of his direction, excelling at composing the scenes beautifully, capturing falling snow or dust in the sunlight (perhaps symbolic of age and decay), that director Jung really excels. The comedy with which we see this old man trying to engage with Eun-gyo’s youthful ways is well played, but the drama works even better.

The jealousy between the two male leads is as pivotal to the plot as the eponymous character. Seo’s jealousy of his mentor’s talent, having ghost written a tacky novel for him as payment in kind for his company (hilariously mirroring a real life situation for Jung), turns to a self-destructive hated of himself. Lee, on the other hand, can’t help but be jealous of his student’s youth; afraid to let his writing out for fear of his reputation, only to find both public and the object of his desire find it all too easy to accept from a younger man.

At the Q&A after the screening, it was interesting to hear Jung quote how much of an influence the film Amadeus, and the relationship between Salieri and Mozart, was on his film. As you might expect, the relationship between Seo and Lee ends with devastating consequences. Importantly for each of the characters it’s their loneliness that motivates their actions, and even takes them beyond of what they know to be morally wrong.

(Unsurprisingly, Jung also quoted Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita as another influence, but not Stanley Kubrick’s famous film version – though having witnessed his excitement to be watching The Shining the next day on the big screen at the BFI Southbank, I’m sure it may have been!)

For me one of the only detractors of the film is the casting Park Hae-il as the 70-year-old Lee Jeok-yo. His performance is outstanding, undergoing 8 hours a day of makeup to achieve the look, and yet I didn’t feel quite convinced by his portrayal. Indeed, I think playing old is one of the hardest things an actor can try and do, and few ever quite get it right. I can only think actors like Alec Guinness and Martin Landau who were ever able to pull off acting so much more than their years, and interestingly even in their earlier roles, they never really seemed that ‘young’.

That said I found it rather impossible not to be enchanted by Eun-gyo, and I think you’ll be too…

Read the full transcript of the group interview with Jung Ji-woo, transcribed by (the brilliant!) Hangul Celluloid aka Paul Quinn.

Eun-gyo screened as part of the 7th London Korean Film Festival.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
Read all posts by Andrew Heskins

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