Kim Ki-young’s Cinema-as-Plague: The ‘Housemaid’ Trilogy’s Domestic Theatre of Cruelty
Images of stairs have been a personal fascination, be it in photography or cinema. To be more precise, I have been drawn to threshold spaces such as door/ways, hallways, and staircases ever since I can remember, to which my travel photographs bear witness. So it is with films, those that imbue threshold spaces with multiple meanings/uses in telling their stories and/or presenting their characters and relationships.
Stairs are particularly intriguing and prevalent in cinema, a testament to which is the innumerable examples of overhead shots of (spiral) staircases, for visual and dramatic impact. Stairs have, however, figured most notably in films of psychological suspense, paired with askew angles and shifting, furtive gazes between characters. Significantly, ‘psychological,’ ‘suspense’, and ‘askew’ eventually lead one to think of German Expressionism, which ‘influenced […] the horror film & the thriller,’ two ‘categories of film [that] use stairs as a setting to enhance the levels of suspense, anxiety, tension, fear, and dread in the narrative.’
But while stairs have indeed been associated with horror and thriller films, most tellingly in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, a more sustained use of stairs is more challenging to find, be it in a single film or across several films from one filmmaker. Eleanor Andrews provides a very useful primer to writings on the presence/use of stairs in film, including Hitchcock’s work. After providing an overview of such critical writing on stairs in film, Andrews then presents a close analysis of one such film in which stairs play a key role in the unfolding of story, characterisation, and suspense: Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963).
Another such film, or in this case, set of films is by South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-young. Kim was so enamoured with not only the story of his 1960 film The Housemaid but also of its use of stairs as a visual motif that he carried on such a motif to two remakes of the film, namely, Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire ‘82 (1982). Nikki J.Y. Lee and Julian Stringer have correctly pointed out that there are in fact several variations of trilogies constituting these remakes, which total to four apart from the initial The Housemaid. However, I single out this particular trio of The Housemaid, Woman of Fire, and Woman of Fire ‘82 as the ‘housemaid’ trilogy in the way they feature stairs as an explicit, significant acting and visual space in and through which characters elaborate issues of class, desire, power, crisis in masculinity/patriarchy, and abjection in the human condition.
While each film in this trilogy has settings outside the household, a majority of the events take place in the house, as it becomes host and witness to a family’s implosion upon taking in a housemaid from the countryside. And while various rooms in the house are sites of the different goings-on, good or bad, that the family experiences with the housemaid, on and around the stairs occur the most dramatic and violent moments between characters. With startling consistency across the three films, stairs are the most prominent space in which not only movement from one place to another takes place but also where characters make known their (increasingly violent) inclinations towards one another.
In utilising the architectural functionality and visual power of stairs to address the (im)balance and/or abuse of power, transgression of traditional gender roles, the destructive force of (domestic) desire, and class difference, Kim’s trilogy can even be read as a cinematic expression of Antonin Artaud’s in/famous theatre of cruelty, especially in his conceptualisation of theatre as plague. As the films progress and the violence of re/action abounds on the stairs – becoming rituals of sacrifice, revelation, and purification – language becomes practically subordinate to guttural sounds and physical action in order to penetrate the surface artificialities of social mores and make the act of spectating an inner journey about human instincts/nature. As Kim states in one of his most famous dictums, ‘When you autopsy human nature, black blood will flow out. That is what we call desire.’ The different forms that desire takes are precisely what the ‘housemaid’ trilogy presents.
 Eleanor Andrews, ‘Whither Shall I Wander Up? Up and Down the Staircase in Film,’ in Spaces of the Cinematic Home: Behind the Screen Door, Eleanor Andrews, Stella Hockenhull, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly (eds), Routledge, 2016, 144.
 See in particular the video ‘Stairs to Suspense: An Alfred Hitchcock Montage,’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3BUZBnDS74.
 Nikki J.Y. Lee and Julian Stringer, ‘Remake, Repeat, Revive: Kim Ki-young’s Housemaid Trilogy,’ Film Trilogies: New Critical Approaches, Claire Perkins and Constantine Verevis (eds.), Palgrave MacMillan, 2012: 145-163. Not to mention Im Sang-soo’s 2010 loose remake, The Housemaid.
 Korean Film Archive, ‘The Korean Film Industry’s Giant, Film Director Kim Ki-young,’ https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/exhibit/wQzZ6tgQ, n.d.