“How do you know what he means to me?”
Breeding our youth to dream of happily ever afters with an allure of fairy tale romance may do them a disservice by completely ignoring love’s equally prevalent loneliness. We hope to shelter their innocence until they discover the truth themselves, but maybe the pain would be less if they knew. Those we desire won’t always feel the same as platonic affection can be mistaken with sexual flirtation, our fantasies finding themselves scandalous or worse. Such barriers may even increase our feelings with forbidden love becoming exponentially more satisfying in its secret. We pursue what we want knowing full well its acquisition might be impossible. Passionate pursuits can arise for people, jobs, homes, and life itself—anything we believe necessitates an active attempt at closing the chasm between it and us.
These feelings don’t ever go away either. While our age, morality, or levels of satisfaction and talent may stifle them, our yearning doesn’t simply disappear. We drive forward with tenacity powerful enough to step on those around us—subconsciously or not—to achieve success. It’s human nature, our belief that we can accomplish anything as long as we want it bad enough. But just as someone coveted can rekindle a fire long since thought extinguished in one, he/she may prove a similarly effective antagonistic force for another. This is where author Beom-shin Park put his seventeen-year old high schooler Han Eun-gyo (Go-Eun Kim) in his 2010 novel and it’s exactly where she remains in Ji-woo Jung’s cinematic adaptation은교 [A Muse]. No matter the form of her impact, however, she is still inspiration to both.
A seemingly unsuspecting young girl—who appears less so after a scene shortening her skirt and tightening her blouse at a seamstress’—arrives on the patio of seventy-year old renowned poet Lee Jeok-yo (Hae-il Park) one day simply because she found a ladder that led there and a chair that looked comfortable. The aging legend’s newly published star pupil Seo Ji-woo (Mu-Yeol Kim) takes it upon himself to tell her his teacher needs help around the house while he’s away on a book tour and a little harmless trespassing turns into a part-time job. A circle of used souls begins as the novelist assuages his guilt of leaving Jeok-yo alone, the girl sees an opportunity to learn about the ways of the elderly, and the poet finds his lust getting the best of him.
What starts with an innocent glimpse at the nape of her neck progresses into an inability to look away once the ink of a henna tattoo on her chest is made visible. A lonely man with only the doting son-like figure he’s ushered along since teaching in college, the proximity to such fresh-faced beauty begins to manifest itself into sexual desire. Her own isolation from a mother who slaps her and friends she can’t relate to only fuels the fire when a stormy night brings her to his door soaking wet. Jeok-yo’s discomfort at her presence becomes too much for his imagination to ignore as dream sheds his years—the benefit of casting a thirty-six year old as seventy—to hold Eun-gyo’s naked body in his hands and find a purity of love.
Reborn, Jeok-yo commences to write this fantasy down while his new muse arrives twice a week to keep him company and unwittingly flaunt her figure. Seo Ji-woo returns to see what in his mind is an inappropriate relationship and reignites the loneliness he thought he escaped years ago after finding purpose through caring for his idol. Feeling replaced, he begins inserting himself into their friendship to push her girl away, but as each attempt is thwarted by her steely, stubborn confidence and Jeok-yo’s unwavering devotion, hidden secrets are revealed to shed light on Ji-woo’s true aspirations. He yearns to possess the capacity to understand beauty like his teacher, to discover the powers this old man wields so he too can achieve the success in career and love that he covets.
From here A Muse turns darkly dangerous with Eun-gyo becoming a trophy in their game of deception. The psychological isolation these men felt was such an albatross that both will do whatever is necessary to hold it at bay. Little details like Ji-woo’s inability to understand the nostalgic worth of a compact mirror given as a gift to the girl begin to make us question his talent while Jeok-yo’s affections threaten us to wonder whether he’ll try turning fantasy into reality. They fight for Eun-gyo through hurtful actions that render what was once an amicable union into one of treachery and lies. The girl’s want to embrace her sexuality becomes their undoing and the only two people willing to accept her as an equal prove petty, jealous, and out of control.
Director Ji-woo Jung unabashedly infuses the proceedings with a fierce emotional resonance that boils these characters’ blood into remorseless anger and unconscionable actions. Go-Eun Kim lays herself bare as an object of intellectual and physical desire as her graphic depictions of sex prove just how alike and dissimilar Seo Ji-woo and Lee Jeok-yo are to one another. The progression of each man’s relationship with Eun-gyo affirms the student is incapable of knowing true beauty while the teacher is left forever chasing a youth long since past. Ending on a deeply depressive note leaving the men beaten by self-destruction, only Eun-gyo is able to grow from the ultimately tragic experience. All she ever wanted was to be noticed—to be loved. What she learned was that despite love’s existence, we’re all alone at the end.
courtesy of www.filmlinc.com