I have a tendency to forget, and I doubt that I’m the only one, that pedophilia does not refer to teenagers. In fact, there are three different categories of so-called “chronophiles”: pedophilia, which refers to prepubescent children; hebephilia, pubescence; and ephebophilia, post-pubescence/mid-to-late teens. But ephebophilia definitions seem to be differently applied to men and women: female ephebophilia ends at 16, male at 19. Beyond that, a person is a teleiophile, which is to say they are attracted to “full-grown” people. So if the object of lust is a 17 year old girl, apparently the lust-er (forgive the dramatic misuse of that word) is in the clear, as far as sexually perverse descriptors go.
So despite my initial judgments, it turns out that the protagonist of Eungyo is not a 70something-year old pedophile. In fact, he’s not much of anything, so I’ve been put on all of these chronophilia-search watchlists for nothing.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
A Muse (Eungyo |은교)
Director: Jung Ji-Woo
Country: South Korea
Lee Juk-Yo (Park Hae-Il) is a 70something-year old former-professor/poet who lives alone out in a nice little place in the woods. He has an assistant, Seo Ji-Woo (Kim Moo-Yul), a former engineering student who is attempting to learn the art of poetry after publishing a bestselling pulp fiction novel, and that seems to be his only company. It’s not clear that he’s a professor any longer, and he has taken a break from poetry, but he seems pretty content with his life. Ji-Woo seems relatively content, too, following in his mentor’s footsteps.
Then, as is always the case, a girl shows up and everything gets turned on its head. That’s just the way romantic stories work, and that’s fine. Except usually the protagonist isn’t over 70 and the girl isn’t 17. So now things are weird. The 17-year old girl is named Eun-Gyo (Kim Go-Eun), and it could be said that she becomes Lee’s muse (justifying the English title, which director Jung Ji-Woo has disavowed) Were Eungyo played as some sort of cute grandfather/granddaughter thing, that would be fine and no one would be at risk of jail time (although there is some controversy about the age of consent in South Korea, I would hope that such a gap would be punishable somehow), but it isn’t. It’s some weird, tense limbo. Eun-Gyo refers to Lee as “Grumpa” (translation error or not, it’s kind of cute), but what exactly she’s trying to get out of her relationship with him is never clear. And what he wants from her is also difficult to discern, but it’s not purely platonic.
It took me a little while to realize why I found Lee immediately off-putting, but I realized that it was because he wasn’t played by an old man. There’s something about the way he was acting that was just a bit too spry. It took me even longer to recognize the actor himself. Park Hae-Il is a great actor and I love his work, but the decision to not just cast an old man struck me as kind of strange, especially given the cost of both money and time required to apply makeup that convincing. Then there’s the daydreamed sex scene between a younger Lee and Eun-Gyo, and while it was still uncomfortable (Park Hae-Il is 15 years older than Kim Go-Eun), my skin wasn’t crawling as much as it could have been. In fact, it was almost romantic, especially when compared to the other sex scene (not involving Lee), which is rather explicit and excruciatingly long.
This daydream is the basis for a poem, Eungyo, something Lee wrote for himself never to be published. But it’s published nonetheless, though under another person’s name, and this is the film’s primary conflict. It’s an interesting one to watch, and it brings up a lot of questions of integrity, artistry, and the nature of plagiarism. It’s a much more conventional narrative thread than Lee’s relationship with Eun-Gyo, and it’s also a reprieve from the constant worry that something is going to happen to Eun-Gyo, who puts herself out there in a big way, intentionally or not. She doesn’t play the victim, nor does she become one, but there is always a threat. It doesn’t create conflict the way the poem’s publishing does, but it definitely keeps things tense.
It’s interesting that the character who appears to change the most (Seo Ji-Woo) is actually the person who changes the least. His character is set from the start, but it’s hidden behind subserviance and plot twists. Eun-Gyo also doesn’t change much, although she is more capable of adapting to her environment than Seo. She’s just a 17-year old girl spending way too much time with an old man she has deemed her Grumpa. Lee has the only real character arc, and it’s a compelling one to follow. His romantic predilection is less off-putting than it could be, at least in part because he never acts on any desires, which means that he is not immediately unlikable. I wouldn’t want to be his best friend, but I was willing to see his story through to its conclusion, and as long as he kept the creep factor to a minimum, I was willing to root for him on the way there.
Eungyo is undoubtedly a movie that could stir up some controversy, but it welcomes that. It’s a film that lays itself bare and then lets its viewers decide on their own terms what it’s worth. It’s also a film that will almost undoubtedly incite a response, and it earns the right to get one. Sometimes films put in controversial elements for the sole purpose of getting a reaction, but fortunately Eungyo isn’t one of those films. The relationship between Eun-Gyo and Lee Juk-Yo may be uncomfortable, but it’s believable. In the end, that’s all that really matters.