The Housemaid

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but if I did, Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid would surely be among them. This remake undermines the unsettling achievement of the iconic original film, made in 1960 by Kim Ki-Young, by constructing an explicitly classist framework for its characters. It replaces the Korean everyman at the center of the earlier film with a sexually smug cartoon character for whom wine and blow jobs are totems of his boundless leisure and power. By doing these things, it panders to an audience that craves victims and villains. It’s a lesser achievement, and a more simplistic one. But it’s glossy and lush and full of gorgeously decadent people doing their gorgeously decadent thing. In its way, it’s a delight.

The two Housemaids are similar in generalities but widely divergent in their specifics. Like its classic predecessor, Im’s film hinges on the arrival of a housemade as a disruptive force in a heretofore stable household environment. It’s hard to say that the homes are happy, because both families turn out to be dysfunctional in their own way. The earlier film’s family had an upward mobility that was driven not so much by the husband’s position as a music teacher as by the wife’s willingness to work herself half to death at a sewing machine, providing the extra income to fund the family’s two-story-house lifestyle. Because the house is too big for her to take care of at the same time, she asks for a housemaid. And there her troubles really begin.

In the new film, the family in question is a clan of artsy plutocrats dwelling in a tastefully appointed mansion replete with chandelier and fancy tub. This group already has one housekeeper, Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-Jong), who keeps the just-arrived housemaid, Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon, a genuine South Korean movie star), at arm’s length. When Byung-sik first learns that Eun-yi is willingly screwing the man of the house and then intuits that Eun-yi is pregnant, her first impulse is to share the information with her employer. Or, more specifically, the man of the house’s mother-in-law. And thus things begin to go poorly indeed.

This movie seethes with class-based contempt in both directions. The sweet, soft-spoken divorcée Eun-yi doesn’t seem to have any particular problem with rich people, beyond finding them a bit peculiar, and she is easily seduced by the well-built and well-groomed Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), who receives fellatio from her in exchange for little more than a swallow of red wine and a lecherous gaze. (It’s another reversal from the original film, which cast the woman as the sexual predator and the man as willing victim.) But once she’s impregnanted, and starts feeling pressure to get rid of the baby, the physical and psychological abuse is joined in earnest. In the meantime, Hoon’s extremely wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo) continues to feel the need to breed, vocalizing her opinion that stopping after just two children is for “common people” who can’t afford the presumed luxury of extra kids.

I’ve not seen Im’s other films, but on the evidence here he’s not a subtle filmmaker. The Housemaid is full of raw-meat melodrama, but the emotional content hinges almost entirely on a viewer’s own capacity to feel rage and helplessness over the myriad ways that men and/or the upper classes exploit and victimize women and/or the working poor. Manipulative? Perhaps. Certainly every plot twist is telegraphed well in advance, which I’d argue contributes to a sense of trashy fun that lifts some self-serious weight from the whole enterprise. Cynics may find their patience tested. But aesthetes will find a film of considerable beauty, skillfully made.

Im’s sensibility is graceful, all the better to take in the carefully crafted interior spaces of the mansion where the story takes place. In one shot, the crane-mounted camera hovers overhead, tracking slowly above Eun-yi as she makes her way, tray in hand, across the marbled floor toward the study where Hoon plays a grand piano. The god’s-eye views highlights her isolation and vulnerability in the opulent surroundings. Elsewhere, the camera stays close to characters, dollying along with them as they move through the various corridors and hallways of the house, often under cover of darkness, sometimes toward an illicit rendezvous or surveillance mission.

His shot compositions are equally elegant, making blatantly seductive use of the widescreen aspect ratio. This is one of those films that’s photographed at 2.35:1 to take better pictures of a nude or mostly nude body stretched horizontally across the frame, whether in bed or bathtub. Just about everyone in the film eventually appears naked or semi-clad, which legitimately illustrates something about the intimacy of family and found family, but also lends the film a voyeuristic charge.

Early in the film, after Eun-yi has washed Hae-ra’s hair, she must clean the bathtub. That means a lot of scrubbing in awkward positions, leaning way forward to get the job done until her skirt hitches up and we see her white panties. It’s a significant moment, largely because the camera has clearly been positioned to give us that view even though none of the other characters are in the room to share it with us. I couldn’t think of any other way to describe that shot except as “fan service” — a concept from the worlds of anime and manga that Wikipedia explains here — until I watched the film a second time and noticed that Im cuts from that shot directly to Hoon in the hallway outside, enjoying a glass of wine. He sniffs it with raised eyebrows, swirls it in the goblet, examining its legs, takes a taste and swishes it around in his mouth, reads from the label, nods approvingly. Like Eun-yi’s panty show, this dramatic act of appreciation has no diegetic audience; Lee’s performance is appropriately hilarious.

Hoon will, of course, consume this woman in the same way he might slurp down a glass of wine from his father’s cellar, a point that Im’s edit makes abundantly clear. That relationship between red wine and bare flesh is countered by an unsettling visual rhyme later in the film, as an elegantly composed scene combines water, a nude figure, and much blood — the human cost of lust, rage and resentment. As rotten as the rich are to the poor, Im’s film argues that women can construct a special kind of hell for each other.

But it’s not a chauvinistic film. Hoon, the only male character in the film, may not come off as loathsome, exactly, but he is a self-serving creep. The women, however, have already been subjugated — by the sexist power structure of society, by the patriarchal nature of home life — and we catch up with them as they jockey for position within the boundaries that are prescribed for them. This film fears especially, I think, for the future of little Nami, the self-possessed and somewhat androgynous young girl who lurks at the margins of the story, taking in the soap-opera machinations of her elders in that perceptive way smart children have.

By the explosive climax of the film, you have to imagine that Nami is a psychological wreck, and Im underscores that point by affixing to it an odd little coda. It’s a crazy family tableaux that landed, for me, not too far afield of the redneck portraiture of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or the loony eccentrics who populate early David Lynch movies. These people are messed up; the circle will be unbroken. That’s a depressing thing to contemplate, but the perverse thing is that Im’s film goes down so easily and elegantly, like a fine chocolate and a swig of merlot. It’s no masterpiece — and it does falter badly in the final reel — but it is nonetheless a thing of wicked beauty, and I do adore it.

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