KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Housemaid."
Related Story: Review: 'The Housemaid'
KPBS-FM Radio Film Review: "The Housemaid"
By Beth Accomando
Air date: February 17, 2011
A 1960s Korean melodrama gets reinvented as a darkly satiric thriller. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the new Korean film "The Housemaid."
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(Tag:) "The Housemaid" opens tomorrow (Friday) at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas.
A Korean family flaunts its wealth. But the pampered little daughter feels closer to the maid than her creepy parents.
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"The Housemaid" is a remake of a Korean melodrama from 1960. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says it's a sleek and darkly satiric thriller. Be listening for her review coming up later on Morning Edition.
Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid" rivets you from its opening frame of a young woman precariously perched on the ledge of a building.
She jumps but her suicide barely causes a ripple on the busy street below. This is the contemporary Korea that Im introduces us to, and it sets an uneasy and foreboding tone for the film.
Foreboding and unease were also at the heart of Kim Ki-young's "The Housemaid," which provides the basis for Im's remake. That 1960 film served up a ripe melodrama about a traditional Korean family disrupted by an envious and sexually assertive maid. Darcy Paquet of KoreanFilm.org says Asian cinema tends to portray the family as the most basic building block of society, and "Kim's somewhat twisted cinematic vision focuses on how the supposedly stable family unit comes apart under pressure."
Im Sang-soo's remake of "The Housemaid" uses a similar premise and focus on class but comes at it from a completely different angle. In the original film the husband is the victim and he's brought down by his maid, a symbol of his rising social status. In the remake, the maid is the victim of her obscenely wealthy employer who seduces her because he's used to taking what he wants.
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The affair and its repercussions stir the wrath of the wife and her mother, a truly terrifying pair of women. The latter even tries to dispose of the young woman by "accidentally" knocking her off a ladder on the second floor of the palatial house.
Swinging from the chandelier, the maid drops to the marble floor with little more than a concussion. The suburban house of the original film provided a claustrophobic setting. The mansion in the remake is huge and vacuous but no less suffocating. Im uses an elegant visual style to present the ostentatious show of wealth. His images are often static and beautiful but they mask a darkness festering just beneath the expensive surface. The person who understands this best is Mrs. Cho, the older housekeeper. Nothing escapes her. She may appear respectful but she has no illusions. She tells the maid the job is R.U.N.S.
The acronym stands for Revolting, Ugly, Nauseating, and Shameless. When the family leaves the house for a vacation Mrs. Cho throws her arms up and declares her liberation.
Then she sits by the ten-foot long fireplace drinking her employer's wine. Mrs. Cho knows what's going on and tries to warn the maid about the potential dangers but to no avail. Im's film is an attack on the rich. The husband takes what he wants with no thought of consequences while the wife can't do anything for herself. She must have someone help her exercise and she can't even bathe herself.
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Im creates a seductive and disquieting thriller in which overt violence is rare but ruthless manipulation and a callous lack of concern for people are commonplace. At one point the maid compliments the little girl on her politeness and the child responds by saying her father taught her to treat people politely because it may seem like a sign of respect but it's really a way of putting yourself first. These people are only concerned with themselves and the image of perfection they present. These are the people F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in "The Great Gatsby" when he said they were careless people who smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and vast carelessness.
"The Housemaid" reinvents its source material in a way that allows it to reflect contemporary Korean society, and a growing gap between the richest and poorest members. It ends with a birthday party for the little girl and it's a grotesque image of the modern family.
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The child looks to her parents, knowing what they have done, then she looks out at us. She is the future and we're not sure what choices she'll make.
For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando.
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