‘The Housemaid’: Another act of Korean film-making bravery, for better and worse

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Still from The Housemaid ()
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The original Housemaid, directed by Kim Ki-young in 1960, was a claustrophobic, suspenseful masterpiece announcing Korea as a major player on the international cinematic stage. The plot was simple: A family hires a housemaid, and, in doing so, invites ruin into their lives. The housemaid is clearly “off” already, but after the husband sleeps with her, in a weak moment when his wife is away, the maid turns psychotic and obsessive. By the end of the film, the power dynamic has completely shifted, and the family has become prisoners in their own home, dominated and lorded over by the maid who now holds all the cards.

Kim Ki-young’s camera slides through the cramped middle-class house, peeking through windows and around corners, creating a tremendously unbalancing effect, with shots that repeat themselves, sometimes obsessively, heightening the intensity and the sensation that this time, this time there would be no escape from that small space. A vicious social critique of middle-class aspirations (“If only I didn’t want a bigger house,” sighs the wife at one point), Kim Ki -young’s film was a massive hit (financially and critically) in Korea, and changed the Korean film industry forever. It dealt with current issues like infidelity and sex outside of marriage in a courageous manner, and it had a bold and stylistic look that has influenced a generation of filmmakers.

It is now 50 years later. Korea’s film industry is once again dazzling viewers around the world, and in this current climate of excitement and anticipation, The Housemaid has been remade by acclaimed director Im Sang-soo. Starring Jeon Do-yeon (2007 Best Actress winner at Cannes in Secret Sunshine) as Eun-yi, the housemaid, and Lee Jung-jae as the philandering husband who seduces her, the remake takes the core structure of what was there in the original and inverts it. Instead of members of middle-class family who want to buy a television and want to have enough money just to take care of their sickly daughter, the family in the remake is wealthy and lives in a virtual palace, high above the fray of the urban streets we see in the opening sequence. The class critique is still there, but instead of chastising those on the low-to-middle rungs of society for wanting more, it points its fingers at the soulless cruelty of the very-wealthy (a less interesting choice since the target is so obvious).

In Kim Ki-young’s film, it is the husband’s story from beginning to end. The housemaid emerges as a horrifying “other,” a demon from the deep who, once she has tasted the air up here, refuses to go away. The film is a grim warning to those who stray from their marriage (even up to the last moment, when the husband breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, a jolting theatrical choice). In the remake, it is the housemaid’s story. She comes to work at the house, and she is shown the ropes by Byung-sik, the senior maid (in a brilliant performance by Yun Yeo-Jong). Lee Jung-jae’s “Hoon” is calculating womanizer, with a very pregnant spoiled wife (Seo Woo), and a young daughter who sizes Eun-yi up with a cold solemn face that manages to be both endearing and scary at the same time. She is a creepy little kid, but you get the sense that she knows her parents are lunatics. Hoon is not getting enough sex from his pregnant wife, and so he sets his sights on the new girl. Eun-yi is swept away by the sex and finds him impossible to resist. (At one point, in a moment too visceral too imagine in an American film, she buries her face in his groin and sighs, “Oh God, I love that smell.”) The mansion is a sexual hothouse and she seems to thrive in that environment. Even the uniforms the maids are made to wear play up the sexual inequalities of the situation: body-hugging grey skirts, tight white shirts, and black pumps with glass heels. The glass heels are the giveaway. In Im Sang-soo’s version, this is a Cinderella story.

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By removing the struggles of the middle-class from the equation and by focusing on the exploitation of the poor by the very rich, Im Sang-soo has, ironically, removed much of the unbearable tension found in the original. We know Hoon is a jerk (put down the wine glass, bub), we know his wife is a spoiled brat, and we know the housemaid is an innocent girl. The film operates from cliché and our preconceived notions about certain archetypes. The villain twirls his mustache leeringly, and the damsel in distress wrings her hands. It’s a shorthand. There is pleasure to be had in such broad performances (the acting is fine throughout), but a lot of power and suspense is lost in that transfer.

The look of the remake, shot for shot, shows the characteristic boldness that Korean directors are known for. For example, there’s a scene in a hospital waiting room, with a solitary character sitting in a stationary chair. The camera rests on her. Rolling back and forth in front of her is another character, in a wheelchair, passing across the frame. The emotional tension is in the stationary character; it is her scene, but her emotions are made manifest in the restless pacing of the other character in the wheelchair. This kind of old-fashioned “blocking” of a scene in order to show the emotional subtext of any given moment is what the American studio system used to do so well (when the directors and actors all came from vaudeville and theatre, and where blocking like that was par for the course, since it had to be readable in the cheap seats). Every scene in The Housemaid has something interesting about it visually.

The mansion is almost another character in the film, filmed in exquisite and almost excessive detail. The space is extraordinary, echoing and endless, reminiscent of the cavernous maze that is Xanadu in Citizen Kane, or the creepy marble-staircased abode inhabited by Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious. The problem with the house, though, is that it is so grand, on such an otherwordly one-percent-of-all-humanity-lives-like- this level, that it is hard to know what we should be feeling about it, except envy at the beauty of it, or relief that we don’t have to be in charge of cleaning it. Neither reaction is ideal for what should be a psychologically taut and suspenseful film. Im Sang-soo and his team of set designers put a lot of love and detail into that house, and it shows. But his attention perhaps was needed elsewhere. The original still terrifies. This one, while visually exciting with a shocker of an ending, and a strange coda right out of David Lynch (a nod to the “this has been a public service announcement” ending of the original), does not terrify. It remains a beautiful visual statement, with some seriously mixed messages at the heart of it. The on-the-nose economic critique does nothing to help excavate the guts of this nasty little tale, because we already know who these people are. Nothing they do surprises us.

There is one notable exception, and that is Yun Yeo-Jong’s performance as the head maid, Byung-sik. The actress worked with Kim Ki-young in 1970, appearing in his second film, Fire Woman, and she has had a long illustrious career. Byung-sik maintains a stony face in the presence of her employers and is an efficient and brisk employee. But when she lets her hair down, sometimes in the presence of Eun-yi, but mostly when she is by herself, a torrent of anger and contempt comes pouring out of her, giving the film its funniest moments. She lies in the tub, smoking a cigarette, her gestures suddenly blasé and “over it," and the contrast between that and her buttoned-up professional behavior is specific, humorous and eloquent. Every gesture, every look, even the slightest hint of an eye-roll behind everyone’s back, suggests volcanic rage. Eun-yi confides in Byung-sik at one point (a big mistake), and Byung-sik cuts her off coldly, in a flat tough-dame voice right out of film noir: “Listen These are scary people, okay?” To see Byung-sik flailing about drunkenly in her room, late at night, screaming her helpless fury up at the camera placed on the ceiling, is to feel the energy that should have been present in the film entire. There is your real class critique. There is the demon emerging from the deep. Yun Yeo-Jong steals the show.

The Korean film industry was, in many ways, launched into the modern era with The Housemaid in 1960. In recent years, Korean films have gained a new generation of passionate fans, due to their creative, dazzling style and confident experiments with well-known genres (Chan-wook Park’s exhilarating and bloodthirsty vampire movie Thirst (2009), Bong Joon-ho’s serial-killer-police procedural Memories of Murder (2003), as well as Bong Joon- ho’s more recent The Host, and Mother, just to name a few). A film industry that is so certain of itself, so confident in its aims, is reminiscent of the studio system in 1930s and 1940s America, where artistic aims and commercial aims often walked hand in hand. It is a rare thing today, in part because such a willingness to take big, bold swings guarantees that there will be misses. Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid is what happens when a film-maker's bravery isn't quite matched by his vision.

The Housemaid opens in New York on January 21 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center.