“No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident…A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse... But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power, glory, wisdom, and love of woman, and the individual woman whom the Goddess may make her instrument... The Goddess abides; and perhaps he will again have knowledge of her through his experience of another woman...”
- Robert Graves
These words as written by Robert Graves illicit just how important the concept of Muses are to the myth of the romantic artist. From Ancient Greece onwards, Western culture has embraced the idea that inspiration was a divine gift doled out to those special enough to be blessed by the Muses. Of course, over time this reverence of the arts would soon veer away from celebrating works and instead became a cult of personality, where the persona behind the work held more sway than the piece in question.
In director Jung Ji-woo’s film Eun-gyo (2012), the familiar trope of a love triangle is presented as a conflict not so much of two aggressive male lovers trying to woo a young woman’s heart, but rather a battle between an older well-respected Professor, played by Park Hae-il, and his young student (Kim Mu-yeol) over the heart and mind of an innocent high school girl, the eponymous Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun) of the title. With shades of Nabokov’s Lolita the film is not really about the corruption of an innocent. Eun-gyo, adapted from a novel by celebrated South Korean writer Park Bum-shin, is really a meditation on ageing and a study on various forms of loneliness, and, in fact, the handful of sex scenes are tastefully subdued.
Built on a web of lies and self-deceptions the relationship between respected poet Lee Jeok-yo and his assistant Seo Ji-woo has a very interesting trajectory in the movie. Jung, doing double duties as screenwriter on the picture, structures the arc of their relationship as starting off as being that of mentor-student or parent-child but as we learn more about their relationship and discover through flashback the origin of their first meeting it becomes very apparent that both men are together for wholly self-serving reasons. Jeok-yo although highly respected by the academic community, is a relic, literally and figuratively. His books are read and what he says becomes automatic scripture, but his guru-hood has forced the man, who wrote stories and poetry about tangible things like the seasons and human emotions, into self-imposed solitude. And with his legacy secure those cultivating his image are, ironically, waiting for the man to die so that they can build a shrine to his life.
For Seo Ji-woo, the engineer turned author in the film, what is quickly gleaned after only a few minutes of screen-time is that he is the weaker of the two men. Preparing dinner early on in the film, Ji-woo abandons the seaweed soup he is cooking to take a phone call resulting in a ruined dish. The way Ji-woo carries himself when around Lee is also reminiscent of a son desperate for a father’s approval rather than a student learning from a master. In short, everything about Ji-woo’s interactions with Lee and his coterie show the man to be nothing less than a sycophant. Yet out of all three leads Lee is the far more tragic figure.
While the poet Lee has turned into a calcified relic in the literary community his achievements were hard won. There is no question that the man is a true artist. However, Ji-woo's success is based not on his ability, due to the fact that Lee ghost wrote his first novel, but on deception and a certain amount of ageism by South Korean publishers. The fact that Ji-woo is a fraud is not what makes him such a tragic figure. What elevates the character to tragic is that having worked so long for Lee any identity that he once had has been subsumed by his connection to him. He must continue to live the lie as the great author, the inheritor of Lee’s literary “gifts”, or, to put it more poetically, the shadow of a great man. Ji-woo’s fate in the end is a moot point since he has already ceased to exist.
The final character in the love triangle, Eun-gyo, is the most mysterious. Is she a femme fatale introduced as a catalyst to destroy the men? Is she merely an object to be lecherously ogled by Lee and Ji-woo? What are her motives for befriending Lee? All of these questions are pertinent to try and understand her, but by the end of the film none of them are really answered. While that might infuriate some, I don’t believe that the character of Eun-gyo was meant to be as psychologically deep as Lee and Ji-woo. She appears to us and to them because she needed some respite from the humid summer weather, stealing a nap on Lee’s patio chair. She is young and pretty and as such Lee and Ji-woo can’t help but be attracted to her, though for completely different reasons. As for her motives one can only guess that like many high school kids she was lonely and bored, not the best reasons but then again, this is not Eun-gyo’s story.
The conflict in the film is found in Lee and Ji-woo’s battle to win Eun-gyo. For Lee, this desire comes from a dual need to feel alive again through his attraction to Eun-gyo and also his idealization of her youth and beauty. She is his literal muse that awakens his passion for living and it is telling that the sex scenes between them are shot with a bright white light, the actor Park Hae-il devoid of any of his heavy make-up, and the two acting like young lovers consummating a romance. This stands in stark contrast to the sex scene between Eun-gyo and Ji-woo, which is far less sweet and far more animalistic, as Eun-gyo lies on the bottom with Ji-woo dominating her from above. Ji-woo may never be the writer that Lee is, but he can, as a much younger man, claim the woman that Lee has doted over for so long. Shattering not only the innocence Eun-gyo once possessed, but also reenacting an age-old story of love, jealousy, and betrayal.