Having heard comparisons with both Hitchcock films in general and Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) in specific, I walked into Im Sang-Soo’s re-imagining of The Housemaid (2010; the original, directed by Kim Ki-Young was released in 1960) with middling expectations. I mean, “Hitchcockian” is one of those terms overused by Brian DePalma apologists so often that it’s lost any meaning, and Fatal Attraction—a heady, effective melodrama with some visual flair—has been copied enough, hasn’t it? But as the events onscreen unfolded, some as expected, some not, I couldn’t look away. I don’t remember the last time I was in a packed theater so quiet that you heard gasps at the story’s twists. The Housemaid isn’t just one of the best-looking movies of 2010, it’s one of the most gripping and intense. Im’s film abandons the sly domestic predator housemaid of the 1960 original in favor of an innocent and draws some rather obvious conclusions about how the ultra-rich see their lessers, and if you were to guess in broad strokes how the film progresses, you’d probably be right. But sleek and cool direction coupled with a dynamic, compelling cast raise the caliber of this to, well, that of Lyne’s film. It’s a decidedly adult movie that neither deliberates too long nor races to its finish, but rather marches along at a medium tempo from mild dread to genuine eroticism to high cruelty to a gut-punch finale. It is commercial without being simple or easy, and compelling despite its familiarity.
Some critics seem offended that this is a film crafted for the multiplex, not the arthouse—barring the handheld intro and an absurdist epilogue, that is. I’d argue that a really well-crafted commercial film is a lot more difficult to accomplish, even more so given the self-imposed limitations of the script by Im (who notoriously drove Kim Soo-Hyun off the project before filming began; her treatment, reportedly strong on sharp verbal combat between the characters, is intriguing but wrong for his vision). Ninety percent of the film takes place inside the family’s beautiful but severe mansion, and aside from very brief bits within scenes, among the six characters at the story’s core: ultra-rich husband Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), his hugely pregnant trophy wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo), their young daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-Hyeon), his mother-in-law (Park Ji-Young), senior maid/general manager of household duties Byeong-Sik (Yoon Yeo-Jung), and the newest addition to the house, a new nanny/maid Eun-Yi (Jeon Do-Yeon). The dynamic in the house is clear: Hoon is the sun around which all other planetary bodies rotate. His comfort and satisfaction are everyone’s first priority, and after decades in their service, Byeong-Sik knows how to keep the home machinery running smoothly. His gourmet meals are prepared and delivered with just the right touches; his vintage wines are served elegantly decanted; every marble surface gleams with museum sterility. Raised in a social stratum at or near enough to the top, he has always had anything he wanted. Older than his wife by a good 15 years and attractive in an unpolished way, Eun-yi catches his eye in a masterful POV shot that shows both her cleaning the on-suite bathtub on one side of a wall, opposite Hae-ra applying her makeup. Eun-yi has her shoes and stockings off as she climbs in and around the massive tub, stretching to scrub every surface, glowing with a light sweat in high contrast to his ice queen wife. He looks at one, then the other; a slight smile crosses his lips. It’s obvious that he’s made up his mind about having both of them. Interestingly, Im sets most of the action in the house but never allows the viewer any kind of scale or geography. The obvious choice is to have the older servant give the younger a tour, thus acquainting the audience with the layout as well. This omission may be intended to keep the viewer guessing, but may rob the film of some of the intensity at fear of discovery as Hoon and Eun-yi have sex under the same roof as his wife, daughter, and staff. It’s the film’s only gamble that doesn’t pay off.
The Housemaid is billed as a sexually charged thriller, and Hoon’s seduction—sexual coercion might be more apt—of Eun-yi lives up to the marketing. Carefully balancing his physical appeal with his power as her employer, Hoon establishes a mastery over her quickly and conclusively. Eun-yi is flattered by the attention, and able to reconcile her passion for him with her caregiver responsibility to his family with little more than a shrug. It’s not that she’s cold or shallow, but rather that she’s just not self-reflective. Her attentiveness to Hae-ra’s needs doesn’t change a bit, underscored by a scene in which Eun-yi massages oil over her near-spherical belly, caressing and cooing over the unborn twins inside. Byeong-sik observes this, fully aware of what she and Hoon did the previous night, and the look of silent shock on her face echoes the viewer’s disbelief. To note, there are not many sex scenes in the entire film, but they are compellingly acted and shot, and though titillating (they are positively lurid by Korean standards), they exist to advance the plot.
There’s a single, fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of Eun-yi’s dilemma: the morning after a night of torrid sex, Hoon presents her with a check. His unspoken but obvious intention is to reward her for the extra “work”, and, tacitly, buy her ongoing silence. It is simply a piece of business. Critically, Eun-yi mistakes the payment as a gift, a sign of affection from a paramour. This error sets in motion a parade of detached cruelty that earns its place in Korean cinema, and that’s saying something. There is no Grand Guignol finale a la Park Chan-wook’s revenge films, but the slow burn of Eun-yi’s fate is no less painful to watch. In the two central roles as housemaids new and experienced, Jeon and Yoon are amazing. Jeon manages to juggle, childlike, her hopes and responsibilities with her adult desires while never coming off as cartoonish. Yoon, playing a woman whose life has been all sacrifice and restraint, moves and acts with a precision that belies her growing frustration at a family whose station in life removes them from decency or honor. The two of them unravel as the story is told and their stories reach finale at the same time, but with diametrically opposite results. The title could refer to either.
At a time when many thematically similar films are about the visceral excesses of torture porn, The Housemaid is about suspense. The film builds it in scene after scene, and while no groundbreaking masterpiece—lapses in logic in the third act nearly derail it—it does succeed on its terms. There’s an odd codicil to the movie which might be a bit heavy handed in its implication that the West, namely America, has infected Korea with the kind of immorality on display in the main narrative. Certainly there’s a strong Western influence in the affectations of the Korean mega-rich, but emotional detachment and corruption by power are not uniquely American attributes. Hoon’s family exists on a level of prosperity and power more historically suited to nobility, and the film would work just as well were it set five hundred years ago, Hoon a king and Eun-yi a handmaiden. The rich are the new royalty, and very infrequently do the tragedies and sorrows of a single commoner affect a king.
“The Housemaid” will be screened at the 34th Portland International Film Festival, February 10-26, 2011. For more information, visit www.nwfilm.org or follow the fest on Twitter @nwfilmcenter.
Eric Evans lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and dog. He makes his living as a magazine and direct mail art director but would rather be taking underwater photos in exotic locales and writing about Asian films. Eric also writes for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow
Editor’s note: For an alternate take on this film, the VCinema Podcast crew will be discussing both versions of “The Housemaid” in an episode scheduled for a March 14, 2011 release.