11.11.13

Two Men Eat, One Man Dies: The Housemaid (1960)

I had been made aware of The Housemaid well before finally coming to watch it, although had I been bit more patient I probably could have seen the bluray that is to be imminently released as part of Martin Scorsese's World Film Heritage Project which is being mounted by Criterion.  Due to research for a project though viewing was of the necessity and its availability on Hulu made it all the more justified.  I, of course, had already seen the somewhat loose remake of the film by director Im Sang-soo, but had long been trying to find an inexpensive way to see Kim Ki-young's Korean classic.  Often mentioned in  both intensive analysis of Korean melodrama, as well as the more broad surveys of the country's film, The Housemaid has been aptly described as the "before and after moment" in Korean cinema.  While it is far and away a different and in some ways better film than Psycho, I am comfortable suggesting that this providing the same sort of film/viewership dichotomy shift but in a way that proved far more evocative in terms of the trajectory of both Korean cinema specifically and the larger East Asian filmic output in general.  Were one to go purely off of the visual stylings and narrative choices in this film it would be hard not to immediately think of Hiroshi Teshigahara's stunning and visceral Woman in the Dunes, yet this equally engaging, if not decidedly more abrasive film arrived to cinemas four years earlier.  I find The Housemaid particularly worth one's time because it is as near perfect a genre hybrid that will ever exist, in so much as it is a combination of the deep-seeded psychological intensity both present in horror and melodrama, usually for entirely divergent reasons.  The Housemaid is scary, but not in the jump scare kind of way or in the ways in which the slasher films of the eighties proved to be, instead working from a frame of reference where the human existence is a thing of inherent frustration always managing to result in the greatest of psychological fracturing.  Furthermore, given the film's entrenchment in horror and melodrama the narrative is visually preoccupied with the idea of the body as something that is to be placed upon with force sometimes physical, but always cripplingly emotional.


The Housemaid, despite its rather suggestive title, focuses on the experiences of a man simply known as Piano Teacher (Kim Jin-kyu) whose teaching music at a women's factory is barely managing to keep his family from falling from their tenuously attained middle class status.  The Wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) attempts to work from home as a seamstress, but her constant bouts with sickness have troubled her ability to do so, made doubly challenging by taking care of their daughter Ae-soon (Le Yu-ri) who appears to have suffered bodily affects from polio, as well as a son Chang-soon (Ahn Seong-gi) whose precociousness borders on diabolical.  Needless to say, Piano Teacher finds his job burdensome, all the more so when he is made the object of misguided affection by countless students, one whose whimsy leads her to write a love letter that causes her expulsion and eventual suicide out of shame.  Moving along with his plans of achieving a higher status for his family, Piano Teacher begins offering piano lessons from home, wherein one of his vocal students Miss Cho (Um Aeng-ran) leaps at the opportunity.  Working in a surprisingly invasive manner, Miss Cho establishes herself as a dominant force in the house, despite only appearing for the piano lessons, when it is revealed by Piano Teacher that he is now hoping to obtain a maid, Miss Cho calls upon her chain-smoking friend, who becomes known specifically as Maid (Lee Eun-shim).  Moving into the space, the Maid is associated more with destruction and mismanagement than nurturing and anything remotely indicative of domestic work in a traditional sense, indeed her inability becomes a point of frustration for Wife and to a degree Piano Teacher, yet when it is revealed that the student who confessed her love to Piano Teacher is dead, both Miss Cho and Maid use it as an opportunity to blackmail him, leading him to "accidentally" have sex with Maid and causing her to become pregnant.  This pregnancy comes simultaneous to Wife also becoming pregnant, causing a divide in the family for expectations and a decision to force Maid to procure an abortion.  This jealously results in Maid becoming vengeful and attempting to kill their children and eventually does convince Piano Teacher to consume poison.  In a final twist, the film moves back in time and suggests the entire set of events to be a series of day dreams only to be compounded by yet another unusual narrative choice in the closing moments of the film.


Given my recent movement in academic research towards gender and embodiment in cinema, both in traditional genres like horror, as well as newer, more unconventional examples, mostly related to non-human/robotic bodies, I have tended to read recent films with this lens upon each text.  While, I will admit it has proven to be an overextension in a few cases, with something like The Housemaid body is not only worth considering, but is absolutely essential to the narrative.  Take for example Ki-young's decided fascination with the disabled body in the film, his choice to included Ae-soon is at first suggestive of problematic exploitation, however, on second consideration one understands that in both melodrama and horror the disabled figure often represent the point of suffering and even decided anger in the case of the latter genre.  Here, Ae-soon, is not the point of ultimate suffering, because individuals like Piano Teacher exist in a state of han, or notion of suffering based on unfair oppression, a term unique to Korean culture and usually evidenced in a larger collective notion.  Many Korean thrillers pull the idea of han to invoke a knowing subtext related to elements such as colonialism or class-based oppression, these ideas are popular in works like Mother or the Whispering Corridors franchise.  Here han is a decidedly privileged feeling and what is often embodied physically, instead becomes something reappropriated for a privileged individual to feel as though he is suffering, despite being well-to-do and only responsible for his own terrible decisions.  Furthermore, body becomes a class-based signifier as well, wherein the rats that appear throughout the film, both evidence a breaking from hegemonic and socially prescribed structures to something deem unsavory and indicative of the lowest of classes, in that rats represent the sewers and streets.  I say this to suggest that the very rats that Maid kills represent her own attempt to destroy her classed body, yet when it is her ability to convince Piano Teacher to commit suicide via poison, it becomes rather clear that he too is capable of embodying a rat. Of course, body works in other ways throughout the film, just as psychoanalysis, Marxist class ideals and many other readings would, it only speaks to The Housemaid as a rich cinematic text.

Key Scene:  The water spiting scene is great, but there is also a scene that falls apart on itself, here literally, due to the lack of a complete copy being available.  In the context of the scene and its suggestion of a psychotic break, it would appear as if the loss of these few frames was predestined from its inception, working in a similar way to Bergman's Persona.

I plan to obtain this as part of the World Film Heritage box set, but it is also available on Hulu, so viewing is subject to multiple options.

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