EunGyo: Busan Review

Half Italian sex comedy with an Asian schoolgirl angle, half arty melodrama, Jung Ji-woo's "EunGyo" is a mixed bag.

UPDATED: Newcomer Kim Go-eun stands out in a Lolita role in Jung Ji-woo's spicy melodrama.

The attraction between a 70-year-old National Poet and a flirtacious 17-year-old high school girl may not seem like the stuff art house movies are made of, but EunGyo is a film full of twists and surprises that eventually puts the unlikely romance in a deeper narrative context. Rather obviously adapted from a novel (by Park Beom-shin), the screenplay traces a Korean-style love triangle, with the third corner being the poet’s jealous young disciple. Spiced with repressed desire, nudity, one voyeuristic sexual encounter and a tearfully melodramatic finale, its appeal for adult male audiences could reach into ancillary markets abroad.   

Best known for his debut feature Happy End, writer-director Jung Ji-woo is adept at combining the classic screen appeal of an uninhibited Asian schoolgirl with the more true-to-life portrait of an intellectual engulfed in stacks of books. The delicacy of their March-December relationship recalls the unlikely Japanese couple in Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, though here the tale winds up more conventionally.

The big highlight is unquestionably newcomer Kim Go-eun in the role of the seductive nymphet. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why the venerated writer Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il) and his self-appointed young assistant Seo Ji-woo (Kim Mu-Yeol) become obsessed with the delicate, pale-skinned teenager they find fast asleep in Lee’s garden one day. Wearing a pair of short shorts and writhing in her sleep, she smites both men on the spot.

Lee invites her to clean his house once a week, much to Seo’s consternation. The youth has recently published his first book, described as a genre novel with psychological insight, and it has shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Only later will it be clear how great his debt is to the poet laureate. He begs and pleads with his mentor to kick EunGyo out of the house, especially after he learns she slept over one night. The scene of Lee waking up to find her nestled in his pyjama bottoms is a bit of a shocker and has raised eyebrows in Korea.

Eroticism apart, there are strains of mild comedy in watching the “innocent” young girl occupy Lee’s lonely heart. He seems perfectly happy to have the stillness and peace of his secluded home interrupted by her cheery presence. The camera smugly shoots up her short skirts and loose panties while she teases the old man. The fact she calls him Gramps doesn’t bother him because, aside from an erotic dream or two, he sees their relationship as pure and platonic. Seo, instead, sees her as a dangerous tease likely to wreak havoc if she keeps hanging around.

Up to this point the film seems like the rerun of an Italian sex fantasy from the Eighties, but the story thankfully has more chapters. Things begin to get interesting when Lee sets aside his poetry and starts writing erotic prose about the wonderful girl who has come into his life. A revelation scene turns the tables on all three characters and the film ends in a mix of bedroom farce and surprising tenderness.

More is sure to be heard from Kim Go-eun, a drama student whose Lolita is alternately irritating and enchanting, and whose freshness and lack of self-consciousness stand her in good stead in the nude scenes. Her final monologue is so beautifully understated it conjures up tears. As the old poet, 39-year-old Park Hae-il has gravitas but he’s still an odd choice to play a man 30 years his senior, and the gray make-up and toddling gait are not entirely convincing.
Venue: Busan Film Festival (Korean Cinema Today), Oct. 9, 2012.

Production companies: Jung Jiwoo Film, Let’s Film Production

Cast: Park Hae-il, Kim Moo-yul, Kim Go-eun
Director: Jung Ji-woo
Screenwriter: Jung Ji-woo based on a novel by Park Beom-shin
Producers: Jung Ji-woo, Kim Soon-ho
Director of photography: Kim Tae-kyung
Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Yonrimog
Sales Agent: Lotte Entertainment
No rating, 129 minutes.