Korea’s most famous poet, Lee Jeok-yo, is well into old age. He has taken as a student cum in-house assistant an aspiring but not very talented novelist called Seo Ji-woo. A neighbouring high school girl starts takes a cleaning job at the poet’s house, and a connection soon forms between the poet and the young girl.
Eungyo – the name of the high school girl who inspires the poet with a new burst of award-winning creativity – is a film which is partly about the relationship between teacher and pupil, and about literary image and intellectual property, but more than anything else it’s about the sadness of growing old, and about love and loneliness.
In a moving scene early on in the film, Jeok-yo looks at himself naked in the mirror, examining his limp manhood, as if remembering what he used to look like. Immediately the melancholy poem by Thomas Hardy is brought to mind:
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin”
The world-weariness of the poet is soon disrupted by the arrival of the girl on the scene. We first come across her asleep on a garden chair, a picture of carefree innocence. Director Jung Ji-woo (Happy End) deliberately chose an unknown actress (Kim Go-eun) rather than someone who was already known to the public, so that, just as the poet sees her for the first time, it is also the first time that the audience will have seen her. Her weekly, and then more frequent, visits to the house is a breath of fresh air to Jeok-yo. Director Jung perfectly captures the ambiguous nature of their friendship as it develops, carefully balancing the purity and innocence with the undercurrent of latent desire. Eungyo calls Jeok-yo haraboji, a fairly familiar term but nevertheless one which emphasises their distance in terms of age, but then has her blouse tightened to show off her ripening figure, and her skirt shortened to show off more thgh. Meanwhile Jeok-yo outwardly tries to remain an aura of detached engagement, but inwardly is plagued by some explicit daydreams.1
As the aspiring novellist Ji-woo points out, even though nothing untoward has taken place, to the outside world the relationship, between a 70 year old man and a 17 year old girl, would be scandalous if it became known.
Jung Ji-woo adapts Park Bum-shin’s novel of the same name, giving more prominence to the role of the high school girl, subconsciously referencing the story of Lolita. For a UK audience, who read in the newspaper every day new allegations about the sexual abuse perpetrated on under-age girls by a now deceased and once much-respected DJ the storyline takes on a special significance, but Eungyo, the muse of the English title, is above the age of consent.
Jung Ji-woo made a conscious decision to cast a younger man (Park Hae-il) in the role of the poet, enabling a flashback to his younger days to be played by the same actor, thus emphasising the contrast between his former athletic self which has been reawakened by the presence of the younger woman, and his current decrepitude. You can see the reasoning behind the decision, but despite the 10 hours a day Park spent in the make-up room (8 hours wax on, 2 hours wax off) as you see him on-screen you can’t help but think of him as a 50 year old man who is prematurely grey, rather than a real 70 year old.
There are some beautiful moments in the film, for example when Jeok-yo rests his head on Eungyo’s lap to receive a henna tattoo, and drifts off into a reverie swimming in the sea of her yellow jumper.
For most of the film the pacing is perfect, but towards the end things begin to drag. It’s always a bad sign when you find yourself looking at your watch, and I started doing this around 25 minutes from the end. As a particular example, the voyeuristic scene on the night of Jeok-yo’s birthday is both too long and tries to do too much by bringing an element of comedy into a moment which is pure tragedy. The ten minute change of mood which follows this scene is shocking but necessary in terms of the direction of the plot. The final coda (which again could be trimmed a little) brings a peaceful resolution to the film.
Overall, despite being probably ten minutes too long, this film is probably for me the highlight of this year’s LKFF. Beautiful and poignant, and one to watch again.
Jung Ji-woo (정지우) Eungyo / A Muse (은교, 2009)
- As Hardy’s poem finishes:
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide,
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide