A mediocre take on the 1960 original with little substance or sexual tension to boot.
Dir. Im Sang-soo
2010 | South Korea | Drama | 106 mins | 2.35:1 | Korean
R21 (passed clean) for strong sexuality and nudity, and some disturbing scenes
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-Jae, Yoon Yeo-jeong
Plot: A man’s affair with his family’s housemaid leads to dark consequences.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: Mirovision
Subject Matter: Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed in theatres – first published 22 Oct 2010)
Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960) shocked audiences half a century ago for its bold, disturbing look at lust, greed, and revenge. It centered on a family whose husband was seduced by a maid he had hired to help with housework.
The devious maid wielded sexual control over the husband, ill-treated his materialistic pregnant wife, and their two children – a crippled daughter, and a mischievous boy, causing despair and anguish to everyone. The film then spiraled into unimaginable depths that explored the worst of human nature, climaxing with an ending that was as shocking as it could get.
Im Sang-soo, the director of the remake, takes Kim’s material and gives it a modern reworking. The result is very disappointing, considering that it is based on a source material. The story and characters are generally quite poorly developed. This is because the characters now take on reverse personalities: The husband now seduces the maid, who reciprocates the action by complying with his sexual needs.
Furthermore, the maid is portrayed as innocent while the wife’s malleable character is easily taken advantage of by others. The couple also has a daughter without any kind of disability. All these changes point to some very serious flaws in the film – the near absence of sexual tension, shallow character development, and the surprisingly lackluster storytelling that grinds along laboriously.
Worse, every scenario seems to occur conveniently so as to push the narrative along, rather than as a result of genuine expression of character motivation. In the original, the piano took on an added significance, that of a tool for seduction, but in Im’s film, it is merely a prop.
The filmmakers have also taken the misstep of shooting the film in a setting of luxury. The characters are very rich, snobbish, and lead extravagant lives. They can force people to do what they want, and solve problems with money. Therefore, there is no real danger that their lives would turn for the worse.
This is in direct contrast with Kim’s film, whose work had a deep, consistent feeling of dread, which is translated visually by depictions of the maid’s diabolical intentions. The stinging social commentary about men’s infidelity does not surface here. Is it because times have changed? If anything, Im’s The Housemaid promotes male chauvinism, and in an indirect way, female victimization.
Emotionally shallow and vacant, The Housemaid’s saving grace is its quite admirable camerawork that moves in a slow, deliberate style. How did this film even get into Cannes? My advice is to skip this and watch the original. You will be greatly rewarded for doing so.