With all the intensity of a New Korean Thriller and the subtle paranoia latent to some of Steven Soderbergh's more experimental narrative films, the 2010 offering from Sang-soo Im titled The Housemaid is something to be seen. However, probably the most rewarding element of this film is that those watching it are given another fantastic performance by Do-yeon Jeon, the actress I praised lavishly in my review of Secret Sunshine, which has proven to be my favorite viewing experience of this year, as well as one of the better films I have ever seen. This film is an adaptation of sorts of an earlier 1960's version of a film with the same title. While I have not personally seen the original I have had the pleasure of watching Beasts of Prey, another film by Ki-young Kim, who did direct the original The Housemaid. As such, I expected a vivacious, sexually driven film that would blow up with cinematic fervor and stop at not point to excel at being a forceful work. The Housemaid is an exceptionally great work of cinema, one that is thankfully seeing larger audience at the hands of IFC, who has, along with Magnolia pictures, proven the most reliable source in expanding awareness regarding Korean cinema. The Housemaid while certainly engaging in some of the tropes and themes we have come to expect with New Korean Cinema, like hyper violence, multi-layered unconventionally formulated narrative and some degree of fear with modernity, nonetheless, manages to exist within its own new conceptualization. While The Housemaid is not the first film from Korea to severely reconsider gender roles and identity to a lengthened degree, this film is particularly unique in its approach, particularly through the ways it reconsiders domestic spaces. The film also considers some of the latent issues in female distrust and deceit, especially when these negative interactions seem to stem from a problematic male figure, something certainly and undeniably present within this film. While intense from beginning to end, The Housemaid is a thrill to watch and something I look forward to revisiting in the future.
The narrative of The Housemaid begins rather unconventionally with an opening of various women of different classes traversing the streets of what we can assume to be Seoul during the night hours. A woman who has been standing on a ledge unexpectedly leaps to her death, at which point we begin what could be defined as the narrative proper in which Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) takes a job as a nanny and maid for a wealthy family headed by Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) a wine guzzling man who takes an instant liking to Eun-yi, despite his wife Hae-ra (Seo-woo) being pregnant with twins. Eun-yi by no means dismisses the advances, despite being led to assume that she is at the very least bi-sexual, and is at one point caught by a fellow maid in the act of sleeping with Hoon. Part out of personal advancement and guilt the second maid Miss Cho (Yoon yea-Jeong) informs Hae-ra's mother of the incidents which lead the worried woman to take out her concerns on the unsuspecting Eun-yi, causing her to fall from a ladder on the second story of the mansion in which she is working. It is revealed during her recovery that she was pregnant, a thing that looms over the state of the house until she is troubled by a miscarriage, one, undoubtedly, connected to her intense accident. Despite Hae-ra's misgivings her mother demands that she enjoy living a lavish lifestyle while her guilty husband is at her every whim, it is during the birth of the twins that she dismisses her feelings for Hoon and leaves it his job to fire Eun-yi, a task that causes her a great deal of frustration. After a discussion with Miss Cho about her motives for ratting her out, Eun-yi hatches a plan to exact revenge upon the family, an act which involves her committing a grandly grotesque suicide within their foyer. The film then closes with Hoon, Hae-ra and their daughter speaking in English as the daughter appears to be painting a picture.
This film could be read as a point of problem as it relates to female distrust and envy within upper class society and, of course, this would not be a completely ungrounded reading of this dense work. However, I would argue that the film is a heightened state of realities in which women find themselves blaming one another for their own unhappiness or anger, when, in fact, it is certainly a figure of patriarchal oppression causing issues. This is clearly the role that Hoon plays within The Housemaid, he is an alcoholic, sex crazed maniac who clearly holds little concern for the world around him unless it can provide him some degree of pleasure. While it is certainly clear that Eun-yi welcomes the advances of Hoon, one cannot deny that her degree of submissiveness can be tied to her lack of power in relation to Hoon the wealthy patriarch. The film is also clever enough to pepper in a few feminist theory commentaries and ideals as a means to push further a notion of unity, as opposed to distrust. We see this first with Hae-ra's reading of The Second Sex as a reminder of her othering, in relation to a male of power, something based almost entirely on her sexual being, which is further emphasized by her being pregnant. However, I find the most telling example of a need for unity to occur in the conversations between Eun-yi and Miss Cho, particularly their closing one, in which they both realize that their divisive ideas were tragically misguided and despite a clear age difference the two had far more to share and celebrate than ignore and destroy. Finally, with this conceptualization of the film in mind, one cannot help but read Eun-yi's suicidal act as a means of feminist martyrdom, in that it causes Miss Cho a moment to escape from the traps of patriarchy and most importantly for Hoon's daughter to see the effects of the current establishment on a woman's sanity.
Key Scene: There are a few scenes set up in front of a fireplace that are cinematically perfect and metaphorically masterful.
This movie is available on Netflix Watch Instantly and well worth checking out, as for me I will be saving up to snag the ultra expensive bluray version.