Review: ‘The Housemaid’
Ripe Melodrama Becomes Sleek Thriller
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Housemaid."
A 1960s Korean melodrama gets reinvented as a darkly satiric thriller in the new Korean film "The Housemaid" (opening February 18 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas).
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 hesitates then 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. In the press materials Im refers to Hitchcock's notion of suspense in which if you plant a bomb in a room you need to let the audience know early that it's there so that suspense will build as we wait for it to explode. The suicide in the opening scene is Im's ticking bomb.
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 (played with a kind of numb innocence by Jeon Do-yeon) is the victim of her obscenely wealthy employer (Lee Jung-Jae) who seduces her because he's used to taking what he wants.
The affair and its repercussions stir the wrath of the wife (Seo Woo) and her mother (Park Ji-young), a truly terrifying pair of women. These women come not on the heels of last year's chilling ladies of "Winter's Bone" and "Animal Kingdom," but also on the heels of some scary Korean females. In 2009 we had the ruthlessly determined "Mother" and in 2007 an entire court of calculating and brutal femmes in "Shadows in the Palace." The mother in "The Housemaid" never has a hair out of place and she tries to teach her daughter how to maintain a similarly well-groomed facade as she deals with a philandering husband and attractive young maid. But don't let Mother's regal poise fool you. She' capable of horrific action when she perceives a threat and the maid is a threat so she 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 designer 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. Its vastness is also set in stark contrast to the maid's tiny apartment, which again draws our attention to the issue of class and economics.
Im uses an elegant visual style to present the ostentatious show of wealth. His images are often static and well balanced in composition but their sense of calm order belies the chaos below, just as the beauty of the images masks a darkness festering just beneath the expensive surface. The person who understands this best is Mrs. Cho (a contained and ironic performance by Yun Yeo-Jong), 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, she explains, 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 much deserved liberation. Then she sits by the ten-foot long fireplace drinking her employer's wine and reading his books. Much of the film's satiric bite comes from Mrs. Cho's character -- she is the ironic Greek chorus commenting on the absurdity around her. 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. But she is even more trapped in the massive house than the maid she's hired.
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. 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.
Companion viewing: "The Housemaid" (1960), "Mother," "Shadows in the Palace," "Animal Kingdom"
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