"A relationship between a 70-year-old man and a high school girl isn't love. Never! It's a scandal, Sir... A dirty scandal!
A story about a national poet having sex with a minor? Sir, you are a dirty old man!"
Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il) is a highly respected national poet in his 70’s who has recently ghost-written Seo Ji-woo's (Kim Moo-yeol) first novel. On finding a young high school girl, Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun), asleep on a chair on his porch, he is instantly enamoured and rather than chastising her for breaking into his property, he (subsequently) agrees to give her a part-time job cleaning his home.
Spending more and more time with Eun-gyo, Jeok-yo quickly becomes deeply smitten with her and begins to write a short story about his imagined sexual relationship with the effervescent young woman.
However, as the two get ever closer, Ji-woo finds it impossible to hold back from vocalising his opposition to what he deems to be an inappropriate and wholly repugnant relationship and, on finding Jeok-yo's manuscript, his abhorrence (and jealousy of both Jeok-yo and Eun-gyo's realtionship and the beauty of Jeok-yo's writing) boils over and he decides to steal the short story to publish under his own name...
They (whoever "they" are) say that we're only as old as we feel and while it's debatable whether or not that truly is the case, it is almost undeniable that our feelings about ourselves are (to a degree, at least) coloured and affected by our perception of how others see us.
In the early stages of 'Eungyo' (also known by its international title of 'A Muse'), Jeok-yo is clearly a man who feels that he is in the twilight years of his life, with all those he comes into contact with treating him as a venerated and learned elder - the literary community wanting to create a memorial to his life's work and Ji-woo constantly referring to him as a father figure - adding to his belief that that is truly what he is, and all he is.
However, from the moment he meets Eun-gyo for the first time long-lost feelings are awakened within him, and her exuberance; lust for life; sense of fun and genuine warmth towards him quickly strip the years away in his mind: As Jeok-yo spends more time in Eun-gyo's company, he increasingly sees himself as the young man he used to be - his love and need for her growing not only because he finds her incredibly beautiful but also as a direct result of how she makes him feel.
As Jeok-yo's actions become more 'youthful', others around him become increasingly confused as to why an elderly man is behaving in such a way - Ji-woo being by far the greatest of his detractors - and while Ji-woo is, in reality, far closer to Eun-gyo's age, he largely plays the part of the older, more traditional moral majority in both his criticism of Jeok-yo and Eun-gyo's relationship and in the hypocrisy of his claim that Jeok-yo's love for this young woman is scandalous and alltogether repugnant, while secretly wanting Eun-gyo for himself.
The dissection of perceptions (both of ourselves and others) in 'Eungyo' also carries through to the characters of Ji-woo and Eun-gyo - with Ji-woo's constant and increasingly desperate battle to be seen as a writer in his own right, rather than just "Jeok-yo's mask", and in Eun-gyo's utter failure to see how beautiful she is to others - and these sub-plots gradually, and deftly, merge within the main narrative thread to help catapult the story towards its climactic conclusion.
However, though the scenes in the final 45 minutes of 'Eungyo' are undeniably a white knuckle rollercoaster ride (and are largely why the film has been marketed as an erotic thriller), more than one of the narrative elements are, to my mind, frankly unnecessary. That's not to say that those scenes aren't gripping - they are - but while they would fit perfectly in a more straightforward film, here they actually detract to a degree from what 'Eungyo' truly is, and should be seen as. For at its core, 'Eungyo' is far from being just a simple thriller (in the genre sense of the word) - its nuanced and ultimately moving depiction of love that is seen from the outside as morally wrong, within a detailing of the life that life itself gradually strips away, deserving of more only being termed 'erotic' or 'thrilling', even though the film is ultimately both.
There is also a scene (much earlier in proceedings) in which Eun-gyo turns up at Jeok-yo's home in the pouring rain after being struck by her mother, but while this plot element allows Eun-gyo to spend the night (in Jeok-yo's bed), it is instantly jetisoned and never mentioned again. That is rather a shame and will leave viewers unable to deny, or forget, that it was contrived solely for that purpose, and that purpose alone.
Of course, any story about a love affair between an older man and a much younger woman (or especially, as in this case, a minor) can be almost guaranteed to provoke loud, vocal comment and reaction - whether that affair is real, imagined or a combination of both - but 'Eungyo' (based on the bestselling novel ‘Eun-gyo’ by Park Bum-shin) manages to sidestep, to some degree, the controversy by its showing of the sexual relationship through the eyes of Jeok-yo as his younger self and, in fact, has somewhat of an air of innocence and, dare I say it, beauty. Ultimately, it is (much younger) Ji-woo's increasing and selfish lust for Eun-gyo that comes across as unseemly, morally wrong and wholly inappropriate.
As if all the above wasn't enough, wrapped up within the myriad of themes present in the film's narrative 'Eungyo' also boldly states that loneliness is a driving force within each and every one of us - be we young or old - and raises the question of whether our need for connection with, and understanding from, like-minded souls can ultimately twist our long-held beliefs and even affect our moral viewpoint.
Finally, in a speech in the latter half of 'Eungyo', Jeok-yo makes the following statement: "Roethke referred to 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." That statement, in one fell swoop, sums up the overriding theme of 'Eungyo' almost perfectly and speaks of what Eun-gyo gives to Jeok-yo, simply by being in his life.
Cinematically, 'Eungyo' is sumptuous throughout but it is framing and direction used in the scenes detailing the love between Jeok-yo and Eun-gyo, as well as the depiction of the character of Eun-gyo herself, that are easily the most visually arresting and emotive: The ongoing liaisons between the two characters that form Jeok-yo's short story are utterly beautiful and extremely reminiscent of scenes in numerous Korean romances; deftly combining slow-motion segments with soft focus, subtle editing and gentle pacing to create an utterly believable and all-consuming love affair.
The camerawork used to focus on Eun-gyo's character adds further to this by providing a deeply intimate visual portrayal of this effervescent young woman, thereby allowing Kim Go-eun's accomplished performance (more on this shortly) to elicit maximum emotional resonance to the nth degree.
A gentle musical score completes the picture (so to speak); morphing from playful, to romantic, to ominous, exactly as and when needed by the narrative.
Park Hae-il gives a great performance as Jeok-yo, both as an elderly man (complete with prosthetics to artificially age him) and a vibrant youth. In fact, there is only one scene in the whole film where it becomes noticeably apparent that he is a young actor playing an old man - in a scene depicting an argument between Jeok-yo and Ji-woo following Jeok-yo's discovery of the theft of his manuscript - but that really is just me splitting hairs.
Likewise, Kim Moo-yeol gives an accomplished performance as the deeply shallow, self-serving character of Ji-woo and succeeds in allowing understanding of his character's actions, regardless of how deeply (and deliberately) unlikeable Ji-woo is.
However, 'Eungyo' is acting newcomer Kim Go-eun's film through and through and it is her astounding and incredibly emotional performance as Eun-gyo that brings believability to her character's relationship with Jeok-yo; ultimately allowing the entire film to succeed.
Pitch perfect throughout, Kim Go-eun’s portrayal positively screams that she is a talent well worth looking out for in the future. Superb!
As a last point, Kim Go-eun should also be given credit for being brave enough to undertake a role as controversial as this and which requires some fairly graphic nudity.
Park Hae-il, Kim Moo-yeol, Kim Go-eun
'Eungyo' is, on the surface, the story of a controversial relationship between a 70-year-old man and a high school girl, but ultimately provides a moving dissection of age and loneliness that deserves to be described as more than simply an 'erotic thriller', though both thrilling and erotic it is...
The DVD edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) First Press 3-Disc Edition from KD Media, complete with soundrtack OST. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present. The picture is absolutely exemplary and compliments the beautiful visuals perfectly.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 and both it and the musical score are well balanced and noticeably nuanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
• Director: Jung Ji-woo
• Format: NTSC, Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled
• Language: Korean
• Subtitles: English/Korean/None
• Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1
• Region: Region 3
• Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
• Number of discs: 2 DVDs + OST
• Classification: 18 (Korean Film Classification)
• Studio: Lotte Entertainment
• Distributor: KD Media
• Run Time: 129 minutes (approx.)
• Audio commentary
• 'Making of' Featurette
• Interview with actress Kim Go-eun
• Short film 'Here We Go!'
Finally, the official 'Eungyo'/'A Muse' trailer is attached below: