“A Muse”, South Korean melodrama released here on this weekend, follows the footsteps of many stories about an old dude whose heart is suddenly trembled by the appearance of young beauty in front of them. A good thing about this film is that, while very serious about how much he wants her in spite of his age, it knows how silly the hero’s desire looks from outside. I and the audiences got several good laughs while we came to care about him and, above all, a young girl who unwittingly places herself between two men.
The man who desires after that girl is Lee Jeok-yo(Park Hae-il with lots of make-up). He is a poet who has been revered by many people as one of the giant figures of South Korean literature, and the people even consider building the memorial museum for his achievement. He does not like being treated like an artifact, so, except accepting invitations from time to time, he lives alone in a cozy country house somewhere outside Seoul.
Although he is surrounded by many books in his library, his career as a poet looks like having been terminated for a long time. He has been assisted by one of his pupils, Seo Ji-woo(Kim Moo-yeol). Ji-woo becomes famous because of his first novel which is not only critically acclaimed but also commercially successful. As his mentor, Jeok-yo should be proud of his pupil’s success, but he does not seem to be pleased a lot when he receives the book. None the less, Ji-woo keeps coming to his mentor’s house, and he works for his mentor as an unofficial housekeeper and secretary; he cooks the meal, and he takes care of the daily appointments for Jeok-yoo.
On one day, their daily life becomes a little different when they find a young high school girl waiting for them when they arrive at Jeok-yoo’s house. Her name is Eun-gyo(Kim Go-eun), and she says she just comes to the house to get a part-time job. Jeok-you reluctantly hires her, but, while watching Eun-gyo’s innocent beauty, Jeok-yo begins to feel something stirring in his heart. At one rainy night, she comes to his house due to her personal reason, and he lets her into his house. Though nothing much happens on that night, he sees that he really wants Eun-gyo – but he also knows that he is a guy too old for the relationship with the girl idolized by him.
As several local critics pointed out, I have to admit that it was awkward to see Park Hae-il as the aging character after watching his virile physical performance in South Korean action film “War of the Arrows”(2011) in last year. He is currently 35, so it is rather hard to accept him as a man around 70 in spite of the make-up on his face and upper body. In fact, he looks more natural when he plays the younger version of his character in the wistful fantasy sequence imagined by his character.
But, despite this undeniable awkwardness, Park Hae-il gives an adequate performance as a man who pathetically remains young at heart. Some old men do not learn much even after they become quite old, and Jeok-yoo is one of those silly examples. Maintaining its serious attitude, the movie approaches to the hilarity of Hong Sang-soo’s films sometimes, and there is a funny scene where Jeok-yoo almost risks his life just because he wants to look good and nice to Eun-gyo.
If he were not an artist, he would look merely silly. Struggling with the carnal yearning created many good works in the history of literature, and the same thing can be said about Jeok-yoo’s circumstance. Maybe his body remains old and wrinkled, but, what do you know, his aesthetical creativity in his heart is rejuvenated at full mode, so his desire is sublimated into his new work which is probably as good as that famous Nabokov’s novel.
With his new work, the situation gets more complicated due to the reason you should discover for yourself while watching the movie. While all these things happen, Ji-woo is not particularly happy about what is happening between his mentor and a girl. Though the movie is not successful in handling this triangle relationship between its main characters(I heard the book, written by Park Bum-sin, did a better job), we come to understand the true nature of the relationship between Jeok-yo and Ji-woo, who are bound to each other by the jealousy and admiration not in the way you expect.
Between her co-actors, Kim Go-eun gives the best performance in the film as the character who is a lot more than the object of the desire. While radiating unadulterated charm around the screen, Kim Go-eum makes us believe her obliviousness to her effects on the other characters, and then she is convincingly transforms her character into a more active player in the story. She and Park Hae-il have a wordless scene when her character starts to sense the feelings inside the man she endearingly calls ‘grandpa’, and this eventually gives little poignancy to the bittersweet feeling of the last scene.
The director Jeong Ji-woo, who debuted with “Happy End”(1999), makes a surprisingly compelling movie with the subject which some of you find unwholesome and uncomfortable. Although the movie is advertised as a lurid and sensational melodrama only because of nudity and sex scene, “A Muse” is a sensitive drama while slowly revealing its sensuality in a tasteful way. I think the movie is a little too long, and I am not wholly satisfied with the ending, but I liked the mood surrounding the country house a lot – and I cared about what will happen to its main characters. In the end, we come to see that Eun-gyo gets more benefits and lessons – and she deserves them as a beautiful muse inspiring a wonderful piece of art.