Saturday, June 29, 2013

NYAFF ’13: Eungyo (A Muse)

Lee Juk-yo is a poet, so he probably never had much common sense.  As a former engineering student, Seo Ji-woo has no excuse.  Their lives will be drastically complicated by a seventeen year-old high school student in Jung Ji-woo’s Eungyo (a.k.a. A Muse, trailer here), which screens today as part of the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

Lee is a revered poet of national stature, somewhat in the Robert Frost mold.  After taking one class with him, Seo chucked in his STEM coursework to pursue a literary career.  Initially dismissed as Lee’s flunky, he has become an unlikely national bestseller with a rather sentimental romance novel.  He still fancies himself Lee’s gatekeeper, so it annoys him no end when his mentor starts showing a preference for Han Eun-gyo’s company. 

Having turned an odd encounter into a part-time housekeeping gig, Han clearly craves the attention of the man she calls “Grandpa” or “Grumpa.” In turn, Lee is intoxicated by her youthful enthusiasm.  If they were only surrogate father and daughter figures to each other, the film would not have raised nearly so many eyebrows in Korea.  However, Lee has thoughts about Han that he expresses in a fateful lyric poem.

Lee Juk-yo is not Humbert Humbert, but his moral judgments are considerably more problematic than the old platonic confidant of Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (oddly enough, two roles both played by Jeremy Irons).  It is clear that Lee gets ideas—the extent to which he acts on them will be the open question driving the film’s dramatic tension.

Jung’s sensitive execution minimizes the leering factor, but it is hard to get around the unsettling nature of the various forms of attraction at play.  Viewers are clearly not supposed to.  Yet, the film’s moral ambiguity remains troubling.

Be that as it may or may not be, Jung’s cast is quite accomplished.  In her first performance as a professional, Kim Go-eun’s Han is no mere Lolita.  She really taps into the young’s girl deep insecurities.  Flirtatious but not necessarily flighty, she yearns for love and approval.  It is easy to understand why she is this year’s recipient of NYAFF’s Rising Star Award.

Playing a character twice his age, Park Hae-il is almost painfully reserved as Lee, scrupulously avoiding the clichés of bug-eyed lechery.  Unfortunately, Kim Moo-yul makes the weak link character of Seo impossibly supercilious and boorish.

At about the halfway point, the film throws viewers a razor sharp literary twist that significantly raises the stakes.  However, it then shotguns a huge can of melodrama late in the third act, nearly derailing the whole procession.  Still, there is something messily human about the film that largely compensates for the inevitable “yuck” factor.  Anchored by two very strong performances, Eungyo is recommended for patrons of provocative drama, who might not have many chances to see it later, given the subject matter. It screens tonight (6/29) at the Walter Reade Theatre as this year’s eagerly anticipated NYAFF gets underway.