Sexual Perversity in Korea
Published on January 20th, 2011 | by Alexander Patino0
January is not a good month for cinema. In the wake of all the Oscar fodder, movie-goers are left with not much to be excited about. Maybe that’s one reason why Im Sang-soo’s remake of the 1960 classic “The Housemaid” comes as such an exhilarating and welcome surprise. There’s no doubt that the film works better on its own, sans precedent – and has unfortunately suffered from the most natural of comparisons to Kim Ki-young’s original masterpiece. In the hands of the supremely gifted Im Sang-soo, 2011′s “The Housemaid” is, if not taut, still a suspenseful and wholly engrossing piece of saucy Grand Guinol ala Adrian Lyne meets Michael Haneke (so much for no comparisons).
The film follows the delicate and naive housemaid of the title, Eun-yi (played by Cannes’ 2007 Best Actress winner, Jeon Do-youn) as she is hired to be the new maid and wet-nurse of a very wealthy and insidiously sniveling Korean household. She is shown the ropes by the family’s frigid longtime maid, Byung-sik (played to absolute, head-smacking perfection by the brilliant Youn Yuh-Jung, who delivers the film’s best and most laugh-inducing performance). At first it’s all terse protocol and putting up with Byung-sik’s cold demeanor is better than sharing a twin sized bed with her overweight friend from her last restaurant job as a line cook. She doesn’t even seem to mind. She’s probably dealt with women like Byung-sik before and just being in that vast, opulent mansion and more than anything, caring for the rich couple’s young daughter and tending to Hae-Ra’s (Seo Woo) belly, which is housing the twins that are to come, are more than just a respite for Eun-yi, but in her eyes, seems to be a cosmic alignment, of sorts. She loves her relevancy in their home and in their family. She loves being around children. She is part of a home where the help knows how to properly pour and taste wine, where children can pick up on a piece of Beethoven by ear. She works for a family of supposed aesthetes, the ringmaster of this lifestyle being Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), the man of the household.
For a good chunk of the film, there isn’t a man in sight. When Hoon gets home from a business trip, the job description goes from more than crystal polishing and belly rubbing. Hoon seduces Eun-yi with an erotic wine-tasting. The sex is graphic, unapologetic, slightly sickening and above all, suspenseful. Before long, Byung-sik, the elder maid, hears the tryst in action and spares no time in telling Hae’ra’s mother Mi-hee of what happens in the night when her daughter is asleep and swelling with exhaustion.
To say more would be unfair, for this film holds so many bizarre treasures and juicy subtleties. To say that it merits a second viewing, to just figure out what the strange nuances could possibly mean, is not a cut at its director, but a compliment. Why did the film open with a girl standing on the precipice of a building? One can probably find the answer quickly enough, but just why was it done in that very way, one can’t know for sure. Why the perpetual adumbration and attention given to an emerald owl placed by the staircase in the home? And what’s with the broken English scene at the end of the film? Why does everyone look so young? So many whys, and yet, “The Housemaid” would’ve lost so much of its inherent nerve-wracking charm without any of them. It’s been a good while since audiences have been treated to some good ol’ wholesome nerve-wracking celluloid sex, but Im Sang-soo’s devastating thriller, delivers in every possible and unforeseen way.