Korea’s national poet Lee Jeok Yo is 70 years old, living quietly in his green, countryside home surrounded by books and trees. The celebrated poet has got an apprentice, engineering-student-turned-writer Seo Ji Woo. The young student, in his 30s, takes care of his mentor, cooks for him, cleans the house for him, drinks with him, keeps him company. In the beginning of the film we can see that Seo Ji Woo has just released a novel titled The Heart, which is triumphantly topping the charts. One day, both men are about to enter Lee’s house when they see a young teenager dozing off on the porch. Our muse is Eun Gyo, a vibrant 17 year-old girl dressed in a plain white tee and light grey shorts. The camera closes up to her legs, her collarbones, her chest heaving slowly as she breathes in and out. Eun Gyo then ends up as Lee’s housekeeper, coming to his house every Saturday to clean up, as she is in need of a part-time job.
Lee’s attraction to Eun Gyo is instant, with her dressing like teenagers usually do, naively exposing skin, seemingly oblivious to the effect she can have on the 70 year-old ‘grandpa’—as she calls him. Eun Gyo adores Lee, she enjoys his company as much as he enjoys hers and she is interested in how an old man like Lee sees the world. She holds his arm affectionately, she makes breakfasts for him, inks a henna tattoo on his chest excitedly. She shares her youth, he shares his wisdom. Seo, however, disapproves Eun Gyo’s involvement in Lee’s life, especially after he discovers that Eun Gyo once stays in the house overnight. Is he jealous because the girl seems to be attracted more to his old mentor than himself? What makes him attracted to Eun Gyo in the first place?
This is not a story of a love triangle nor is it a perverse melodrama. As we follow the film, we come to understand each character’s thoughts and darkest desires. We come to understand how much Seo is actually indebted to Lee and yet he thinks he is justified to do the things he does. Seo is ungraceful, obsessed with fame and success, unabashedly using his mentor to achieve what he wants. Lee sees Eun Gyo and laments about his lost youth, he dreams of his younger self being able to touch Eun Gyo, to make love to her, things that are impossible to him now. Eun Gyo has an abusive mother, a need for a father figure, an obscured desire to be needed, to be wanted.
Watching A Muse makes you realize how thin the line between disturbing and beautiful is, and director Jung Ji Woo has accomplished beauty. Lee’s attraction towards Eun Gyo never comes off as taboo as it initially suggests, in contrast, it is tender, loving, beautiful. You understand Lee’s feelings, you fall in love with Eun Gyo just as hard. In fact, it won’t be Lee’s interaction with Eun Gyo that disturbs you, but rather Seo’s. The film starts in spring, progressing all the way to winter and the tone seems to keep pace with the seasons, growing colder and more bitter as it continues. It starts out quite mellow, but the last third of the film is dark, with jarring revelations. The warm cinematography works so well for the film, especially shots involving Eun Gyo, she seems to effortlessly glow from her sensual naivety, her fair skin delightfully basking in the sunlight.
Park Hae Il had to undergo 8 hours of make-up to make him look twice his real age and although it works fine, most of the time we do know that he’s not 70. But that detail aside, he still gives quite an engaging performance. Kim Moo Yul’s Seo Ji Woo is so unlikeable, that even though we understand him, it’s not that easy to sympathize with him. Nevertheless, he doesn’t cease to be a two-dimensional villain. But of course, the star is the muse herself, Eun Gyo. Twenty-one year-old Kim Go Eun was a drama major at Korea National University of Arts when he came to know director Jung Ji Woo and ended up auditioning for the role. Both Jung and author Park Bum Shin—whose novel this film is adapted from—thought she was perfect for the role and frankly there’s no way the filmmaker could have cast anyone who better portrays Eun Gyo than Kim. It doesn’t even seem like she is portraying her character, she really is her character. She’s innocent, she radiates, she’s cheerful, and at the same time she’s layered and a lot more than meets the eye. She doesn’t seem like your typical definition of beauty at first but damn, how she becomes breathtakingly beautiful to your eyes.
A Muse is apparently dubbed as an erotic thriller, but that barely explains the film. Yes, it is erotic, with some very graphic scenes. Yes, it sometimes feels like a thriller. And there are even scenes that seem to try to draw some laughs, with a teasing background score to accompany them. However, in the end it’s a brave and philosophical work that shows aging, youth, desires and most of all, loneliness.
In a scene, Lee quoted American poet Roethke and said that he referred getting old as “wearing the leaden weight of what I did not do. Just as your youth is not a prize for your efforts, my agedness is not a penalty for my faults” and that fits the film perfectly.