WEBTAKES: The Housemaid
Reviewed by Borah Chung and Richard Havis

Directed and Written by Im Sang-soo; produced by Jason Chae; cinematography by Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Lee Eun-soo; production design by Lee Ha-jun; costume design by Choi Se-yeon; music by King Hong-jip; starring Jeon Do-youn, Lee Jung-jae, Youn Yuh-jung and Seo Woo. Color, 106 min. An IFC Films release.

Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid is a remake of a 1960 film of the same name by Kim Ki-young. More accurately, Im’s film is a “reimagining” of Kim’s work. The orginal movie focused on a sexually voracious housemaid with social aspirations who destabilized a nascent middle-class family by seducing the man of the house. Im’s modern-day version reverses the story: a passive working-class housemaid is seduced by her arrogant rich master and punished by his wife and her fearsome mother.

Although the story and message of the two films differ, there are thematic and stylistic similarities. Both movies share a narrative core and a surfeit of diabolic and dynamic women protagonists. Both films could loosely be described as psychological dramas that bend the rules of the genre. Kim’s film veers into melodrama and expressionism—a harbinger of the more surreal and loosely structured films he would go on to make. Although it utilizes many genre conventions, Im’s film aspires to break free from the genre to become a serious drama. Kim’s is ultimately the better film, although Im’s version is not without interest.

This review is about the recent version but the two films, to borrow a term from physics, are in a state of entanglement. Knowledge of the first is necessary to form a proper appreciation of the second. Kim’s film was made in 1960, when post-Korean-War South Korea was undergoing an industrial revolution. Women were coming into the work force for the first time and, although Korean society remained very macho, men were confused by this new social development. The 1960 film highlighted the fragility of a new middle class, and the consequence of industrialization’s affect on gender roles.

In the original Housemaid, Eun-shim (Oh Myeong-sook), is a friend of a factory girl who suggests that she would make a good housemaid for newly middle-class music teacher Jin-kyu (Kim Dong-shik) and his busy wife Joo (Lee Jeong-shim). A pushy and sexually aggressive young woman, she quickly—and seemingly genuinely—falls in love with the music teacher and seduces him. She becomes pregnant, and is encouraged by the wife to kill the fetus by throwing herself down the stairs, which she does. Deranged by the loss of her child and her continuing passion, she refuses to leave the household and threatens to shame the family by revealing the affair if they force her out. The newly middle-class family are so terrified of losing their hard-won social position because of a scandal, the wife even allows the housemaid to share her husband’s bed. Husband and housemaid finally find the situation untenable and commit suicide by drinking rat poison together.

In the remake, Im refashions the story into a movie about Korea’s class system—a struggle between the country’s wealthy leisure class and the working class. It’s a movie about how the wealthy exploit the poor, and do not hesitate to do inhumane and cruel things to them in order to satiate their greed and to maintain their power and wealth. More importantly, it shows how the wealthy don’t bat an eyelid at the problems they cause by doing this and are generally insulated against any form of retaliation.

Im begins the film by introducing his housemaid Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) working in a seafood restaurant—a modern day equivalent of factory work. Eun-yi then takes a job as a maid for a wealthy family consisting of the supercilious husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and his pregnant wife Hae Ra (Seo Woo). Eun-yi quickly bonds with their precocious child, and has fractious exchanges with the household’s ageing maid, Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung, who featured in Kim’s Woman of Fire, the second in his Housemaid trilogy, which ended with Woman Of Fire ‘82). This time it’s the husband who seduces the housemaid. Eun-yi is willing but passive, and becomes pregnant.

The older maid tells the wife’s mother about the pregnancy. The mother is a manipulative and vicious woman who at first tries to murder Eun-yi, then forces her to have an abortion. As she recovers from the abortion away for the family, Eun-yi’s depression turns into a desire for revenge. She returns to the family household and commits suicide in front of them by hanging herself from a chandelier, setting herself on fire as she dies. She hopes that this will ruin the family’s life by mentally disturbing the children, who witness her suicide.

Differences between Kim’s maid and Im’s maid inform the differing ideas behind the two movies. Kim’s maid Eun-shim is introduced to the audience coming out from hiding in a closet, smoking a cigarette. This was scandalous behavior for a woman in 1960s Korea—in fact, Korean society today still frowns on women smoking in the street. She aggressively seduces—even blackmails—the husband to have sex with her. After this, she demands the same rights as his wife and the right to be a member of the family. She is a sexual force—in director Kim’s eyes, a demonic sexual force—out to destabilize middle-class society.

By contrast, Im’s Eun-yi is naive and passive. We see her looking up at the sky, ever so innocently popping bubble gum, then the scene cuts to her skipping to her job interview with the older maid. Could she be any more childlike? Eun-yi is also submissive. Although she was hired mainly as a nanny, she acts more like the wife’s servant. She does her nails, prepares her food, cleans the house and—as is mentioned three times—hand washes the wife’s underwear, a degrading task. Far from pursuing the husband, she is meek, telling her friend “... it is like it never happened, and that’s that.” Her only act of defiance is her suicide. But Kim’s maid is seldom seen doing menial tasks. As soon as she enters the house she begins spying on the family, and immediately starts terrorizing them. She is clearly the aggressor.

Class issues, not gender roles, are the focus of Im’s remake. Indeed, the gender politics of the contemporary version is thoroughly uninteresting, as are the somewhat hammy sex scenes. The different social classes are represented by female characters and through uniquely female issues. The working-class characters in Im’s film are the opposite of Kim’s housemaid. They remain docile, even though they are often insulted and victimized by the rich. When they are pushed and stepped on too much, they only have the power to destroy themselves in an attempt to demonstrate their protest. They hope that this self-sacrifice will have some impact on society. Eun-yi’s final act of self-immolation will remind some viewers of Korean labor activist Jeon Tae-il, who set himself aflame as a protest against poor working conditions (as shown in Park Kwang-su’s biographical feature Jeon Tae-il).

Does Eun-yi succeed in revenging herself on her rich exploiters? The last scene of the film—an epilogue—is somewhat obscure. The rich family is celebrating a birthday outside on the lawn, but something is amiss. The wife sings “Happy Birthday” like Marilyn Monroe, and the young child is offered champagne. They are speaking English, and the acting is more exaggerated than we have seen before. The expressions of the young child look slightly disturbed, suggesting that she has been affected by the sight of the maid setting herself aflame. But the scene could equally demonstrate that Eun-ji’s suicide had no effect on the family at all—they are continuing to enjoy their lives in the dissolute manner of the extremely wealthy. They are inured by their wealth and position from any attempts at retaliation. The scene also demonstrates that, in spite of their wealth, the rich lead empty, rather stupid lives.

Im’s film proves somewhat difficult to categorize. That is not, of course, a fault in itself. But the intrusions of genre conventions and genre characterizations often undermine the film’s pretensions towards serious drama. The incident when the mother tries to murder the housemaid is the main case in point. The mother makes Eun-yi fall from a second-story balcony but she miraculously manages to catch onto a chandelier. When she does finally fall to the ground, she inexplicably survives without serious injury. As for the cruel mother, she is a genre character who does not successfully mesh with the film’s attempt to raise serious issues.

Indeed, while the other characters are more rounded, they are still ciphers for the director’s ideas, and are forced to act in the way that the plot demands rather than developing naturally. Some of these concessions to genre could be explained by the current state of the Korean film industry. Whereas even mainstream directors have previously been given a degree of liberty to experiment, a recent drop in the popularity of Korean films at home means that producers now want to play it safe. Thus, perhaps, the easily identifiable “Cruella de Vil” villainess and the spectacle of the near death by falling. The film was promoted as a mainstream drama for mass consumption in Korea, with popular actress Jeon Do-youn providing marquee value, and the promise of her sex scene used as an extra marketing tool. (Im himself has stated in an interview that he markets his films with salacious elements such as sex and violence in order to draw a mainstream audience.) But whatever the reason, the shifts between drama and genre are the film’s main flaw.

As a footnote, it’s enjoyable to fantasize about another “entanglement” between the two films. The female characters in Im’s version could, in a parallel universe, be the characters in Kim’s version, if they had survived and aged. The old maid Byun-sik resembles an aged version of Kim’s original housemaid, had she continued her career in domestic servitude rather than committing suicide. Hae Ra’s vicious and protective mother could easily be an embittered, aged incarnation of the young wife in Kim’s version.

Borah Chung studies film and Asian Studies at Rutgers University and her writing focuses on Korean film and society.

Richard Havis writes about film for The South China Morning Post.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.