South Korean melodrama gets dirty, but not dirty enough
The Housemaid (2010)
Directed by Im Sang-Soo
Cast: Jeon Do-Yeon, Lee Jung-Jae
South Korean director Im Sang-Soo’s new film The Housemaid (Hanyo) is a remake of Kim Ki-Young’s well-regarded 1960 film of the same name. That obscure little factoid probably isn’t going to gain the film much ground here in America. But it’s clear evidence that Hollywood isn’t the only film industry obsessed with remakes and reimaginings.
Im (writer-director of the wry 2005 black comedy The President’s Last Bang) follows the basic framework of Kim’s psychosexual original, while making a number of concessions to temporal progress. The basic story is this: Eun-Yi (Jeon Do-Yeun) lands a job as a maid and nanny for wealthy young couple Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae) and Haera (Seo Woo). The couple lives in a fabulous mansion with an older head housekeeper (Yun Yeo-Jong) and their preschool-age daughter (Ahn Seo-Hyeon). Though she does little more than sip wine and practice yoga, Haera is late in her pregnancy with twins, and Hoon feels she needs help around the house. Hence, the hiring of Eun-Yi. Of course, with an extremely pregnant wife and a naive, attractive maid around, Hoon’s attentions start wandering. In due time, he’s engaging in unlawful carnal knowledge with innocent Eun-Yi. Of course, it’s just a matter of time before that poor impulse control comes back and bites him on the ass. Big time.
While The Housemaid remains an erotic thriller, it’s a good half-hour before anything erotic happens and at least an hour before our first hint of thrills arrives. That isn’t a criticism so much as an observation. Im isn’t following in the footsteps of Korean contemporaries like Park Chan-Wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Thirst) by favoring stylish imagery and ornate editing. The Housemaid mirrors an older, more elegant Asian film tradition. This gives The Housemaid a notably slower, more melodramatic pace. Combined with its near-total lack of musical soundtrack and its glaring video cinematography, The Housemaid has the look and feel of a television soap opera. A very well-made soap opera. But a soap opera nonetheless.
An American remake would have gone the obvious direction, making Eun-Yi an obsessive psycho and ending the whole thing with a Fatal Attraction-style stalk-and-slash. Instead, The Housemaid goes with a socioeconomic commentary about the entitled rich and the exploited servant class. It’s Eun-Yi who’s the victim here. And a mostly passive one at that. With Hoon out of the household on a business trip, Haera’s mother steps in and immediately sniffs out her son-in-law’s infidelity. The house starts filling up with estrogen and turns into a nest of vipers: Eun-Yi and the head housekeeper on one side, Haera and her mother on the other. Haera’s mother does her Lady Macbeth damnedest to figuratively poison those around her. Eventually, she dumps the figurative and goes straight for the literal. At some point, cheating hubby returns home and all hell breaks loose. Spoiler alert: This will not end well.
The sex in The Housemaid is blunt, explicit and to-the-point. But there isn’t quite enough of it to shock or titillate audiences. Im, who also scripted, doesn’t dig deep enough into his characters to make either the sex or the violence (what little there is of it) resonate. Everyone, from Eun-Yi on down, is a bit of a cypher. As a result, it’s hard to get too worked up about their fates, good or bad. The sets, though, are captivating and impeccably shot. The main household—with its modern black-and-white decor, crystal chandeliers and seemingly flash-frozen flower arrangements—suitably embodies the beautiful, icy distance of the overprivileged. If only The Housemaid had dug beneath that perfectly metaphorical surface to find more grime among the cracks.