Kim Go-Eun discusses Eungyo (A Muse) during a New York Film Festival Q&A. Photo: Misun Jin

An older woman pursuing a younger man has been an en vogue big (and little) screen plot for what seems like ages. The so-called cougar phenomenon indulges May-December fantasies without risking the discomfort that the opposite configuration can elicit. But South Korean director Jung Ji-woo does just that in his award-winning, and controversial, Eungyo (A Muse), which had its New York Premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival over the weekend.

Based on the novel Eun-gyo by Park Bum-shin, the film, which polarized audiences at home, revolves around an aging poet laureate (played by Park Hae-il) and his protégé who become romantically tangled with a beautiful 17 year-old high schooler, deftly played by newcomer Kim Go-Eun who won the break-out role over scores of veteran actresses.

“It was very black and white with audiences in South Korea,” said Kim at the Walter Reade Theater Sunday. “Some people really liked it and others didn't. It divided people. For those who supported the movie, they were able to understand the directors point of view and the point he wanted to make. For those who didn't like it, they only saw the surface, I think. You have to dig below to fully understand the story. People against it were only interested in the scandalous or salacious parts of the movie and didn't go beyond that.”

Loneliness and youthful exuberance are two constants throughout the film. Seventy-something Lee Jeok-yo is a hailed poet/writer. After arriving home with his thirty-ish assistant, Seo Ji-woo (Kim Mu-yeol), he discovers young Eun-gyo (Kim) on a deck chair in his yard. Her beauty and youth immediately charm the poet, who ignores the fact that she trespassed on his property. After chatting, he offers her a part-time job working at his home.

Her presence and attention quickly awakens a lust for life and a reconnection to his youth. Lee becomes increasingly attached to the girl, who is only too ready to lavish him with affection. On the side, he embarks on writing a short story about an imagined sexual relationship with her. His protégé, however, becomes increasingly jealous and voices his disdain for what he says is an inappropriate relationship. After discovering the short story, his emotions reach a boiling point and he decides to take the short story and publish it under his own name.

Kim Go-Eun in Jung Ji-woo's Eungyo (A Muse)

“In the beginning it was the the youth that Eun-gyo possessed that made Mr Lee attracted to her,” said Kim. “When he began to love her, they were able to [understand each other]. He was able to see the sadness in her and she was able to give back to him emotionally.”

Kim studied drama at the Korea National University of Arts and had never appeared in a film or television series. After a chance meeting with the director, she ended up auditioning for the role of Eun-gyo, which was clearly a sought after part with scores of actresses vying for the part.

“I didn't think about it a lot,” said Kim. “I didn't go in there thinking I have to get this role. I had some lines that I memorized but I also like to sing. So, I went in and played guitar and sang during the audition.”

Korean-born, Kim spent a decade in China, which she says gave her an opportunity to experience different perspectives, which has informed her approach. “My time in China has allowed me to see things outside of the box and that has helped my approach to many things that I do,” she said.

The fledgling star is currently working on a new film called Master, in which she plays a person with disabilities, but manages to fight. She said the role has a “significant psychological aspect to it.” She will start another new project in September. Kim is clearly on a roll, having received a number of accolades including eight Best New Actress prizes by prestigious organizations back home including the Korean Association of Film Critics and the Buil Film Awards, where A Muse also won Best Film.

Looking ahead, Kim says she wants to explore different genres,and is even interested in doing foreign films: “I want to do everything. I want to try all kinds of roles in both Korea and abroad.” But for now, she is continuing to receive notice for A Muse. “I was just curious about what kind of an actress would play the part of Eun-gyo. I had no idea I would play her.”