“Lolita” goes Korean with “A Muse”, the story of a 70 year old poet falling in love with a young high school girl. Based upon the popular and controversial novel “Eun Gyo” by Park Bum Shin, the film was directed by Jung Ji Woo, who previously tackled unconventional relationships in his acclaimed 1999 debut “Happy End”. As well as its premise, the film attracted attention for the choice of award winning actor Park Hae Il (“War of the Arrows”) as the male lead, the 35 year old apparently undergoing nearly 8 hours of makeup daily to fit him for the part. In addition to Park, the film also stars Kim Moo Yeol (“Doomsday Book”), and actress Kim Go Eun in the pivotal role of the girl, a first time actress whose only prior experience had been in student productions.
Park Hae Il plays the 70 year old Lee Jeok Yo, one of Korea’s top and most praised poets, who lives in peace in a beautiful country home outside Seoul. His main contact with the world is through his apprentice Seo Ji Woo (Kim Moo Yeol), a former engineering student turned prize winning novelist. One day he returns home to find a 17 year old girl called Eun Gyo (Kim Go Eun) sitting on his porch, and inspired by her angelic beauty asks her to visit several times a week as his housekeeper. Greatly taken with Eun Gyo, Lee finds his youth and desire reawakening, and starts work on a new story about his feelings for her, upsetting Seo and leading to a storm of jealousy and obsession.
Thankfully, “A Muse” takes an artistic and humanistic approach to its potentially lurid subject matter, and though there is a great deal of nudity and surprisingly graphic (though never distasteful) sex, Jung Ji Woo does a great job of turning out a searching and affecting piece of character drama. Certainly, the film handles the issue of a 70 year old being in love (and lust) with a 17 year old with exactly the right balance, being perfectly aware of the ridiculous awkwardness of the situation, working in some nicely judged scenes of gentle humour, and allowing the aged poet to take wing with flights of fantasy (which also give Park Hae Il the chance to appear without makeup). With Eun Gyo representing not only sexual desire, but more importantly lost youth, the film is wistful and melancholic, though without ever wallowing too much, and it does at times manage to feel like a piece of meditative poetry.
The film is chiefly driven by its characters, and the three players are each a fascinating figure in their own way. To an extent, Lee is the most straightforward of the three, with the conflicted and tormented Seo Ji Woo having more secrets and a darker side, and the relationship between the two men and the revelations that emerge in the third act are surprising and dramatic. Eun Gyo is similarly a complex figure, initially seeming naïve and wholly oblivious to the effect she has on Lee and Seo, though subtly developing through the course of the film, with hints of low self-worth, domestic abuse, and perhaps inevitably, a father figure obsession. All of this makes for a very compelling dynamic, and the way in which the self-destructive triangle shifts, by turns passionate and tragic, makes for tense and moving viewing.
The visuals fit the subject matter perfectly, and the film is frequently very beautiful, making great use of the gorgeous country house and its surroundings and Jung capturing a number of quite lovely moments here and there. However, it’s the performances which impress the most, Park Hae Il doing a very creditable job in the always challenging task of playing a far older man and in managing to emote successfully under layers of latex. The film is one of the few where this gambit actually works, as the fact that Park is, despite the best efforts of the makeup team, clearly much younger, fits well with the theme of his character struggling with lost youth and impotently trying to deal with reawakened vigour. Kim Moo Yeol is similarly on good form, preventing Seo Ji Woo from ever becoming a villain or third wheel, though its newcomer Kim Go Eun who really carries the film with her difficult role, adding layers of emotional depth to Eun Gyo and making her far more than a mere nymph or teen temptress.
“A Muse” emerges as one of the more brave and thoughtful Korean dramas of the last year, and one which goes beyond its sensitive subject matter. Jung Ji Woo again proves himself a director of talent and substance, and thanks to superb performances from the highly accomplished cast the film is both sensuous and philosophical.
Ji-woo Jung (director) / Ji-woo Jung (screenplay), Beom-shin Park (novel)
CAST: Hae-il Park … Lee Juk-Yo
Mu-Yeol Kim … Seo Ji-woo
Kim Go-Eun … Han Eun-gyo
Man-shik Jeong … President Park
Park Cheol-Hyeon … Blondie
Jang Yun-sil … Reporter Kim