One of the classic Korean cinema’s most adored works – this is a tale of lust, greed and revenge.
Dir. Kim Ki-young
1960 | South Korea | Crime/Drama/Thriller | 108 mins | 1.60:1 | Korean
PG (passed clean) for some scenes of intimacy
Cast: Kim Jin-kyu, Ju Jeung-nyeo, Lee Eun-shim, Eom Aeng-ran, Ko Seon-ae
Plot: A composer and his wife are thrown into turmoil when a housemaid becomes more than what they bargained for.
Source: Korea Munye Films / The Film Foundation
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on MUBI – first published 1 Dec 2010)
It was only in the last two decades that Korean cinema had slowly become a force to be reckoned with. Today, Korean films set the standard for Asian cinema, and are only occasionally bettered by films from Japan, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Some of Korea’s top filmmakers, such as Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, and Bong Joon-ho, to a name a few, are now rubbing shoulders with the great directors of Europe, frequently taking part and winning awards in film festivals like Cannes and Venice.
The renaissance (if that is the correct word) of contemporary Korean cinema owes a debt to Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid, one of a number of great films to emerge post-war from the country.
The Housemaid is about a happy family who is torn apart by a maid hired by the husband to help with daily chores. The maid seduces the husband and tries to wield control over his materialistic wife who is pregnant. The maid also has tensions with their children – a crippled daughter and a mischievous boy.
The Housemaid starts out like an Ozu-esque drama where life couldn’t be more ordinary, with Kim taking his time to flesh out the film’s major characters. The first scene immediately foreshadows what is to come later: The husband, who is reading the paper, is aghast at a report of a man who committed adultery with his maid. His wife reacts by replying, “Men are hopeless, taking interest in a maid.”
Their maid unsurprisingly appears in the second-quarter of the film, bringing an ominous development to the proceedings. The performance by Lee Eun-shim who plays the maid is tremendous, providing Korean cinema with one of its vilest villains.
She hides her ‘sexual predator’ self under her shy demeanor, only exposing her true colors when she finds herself alone with her master. Kim also sets up the mood of the film to work out like a ‘haunted house’ picture. Many of the external shots are that of lashing rain and blinding lightning, giving the film a sinister edge.
His direction is assured, and slowly but surely, he navigates his film into horror territory. The second hour of The Housemaid is unpredictable. The situation that unfolds border on disturbing material, with Kim exploring the worst of human nature.
The climax is frightening not because it is horrific, but because it is tragic. Kim also adds a layer of dark humor into the dialogue, which coupled with some over-the-top acting, helps to make the film less grim.
Nevertheless, The Housemaid remains to be a stinging social commentary and a powerful tale of lust, greed, and revenge. In the final scene that breaks the fourth wall, men are mocked for their ease of succumbing to temptations of flesh, like tiger to fresh meat. But really, is it fair to put the blame on one half of the human race?