“Men are hopeless, taking interest in a maid” says a shocked newspaper reader in Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. When it was released in 1960, the film shook the face of Korean cinema forever and today remains one of the most iconic Asian films ever made. With the impending sexual revolution, the films of 1960 seem to have grasped onto this upcoming change and began exploring the role of sex in society. In films like The Apartment, L’aventura and even Psycho, sex became as obvious onscreen as it had been repressed in the past.
The Housemaid in particular explored the notions of sex as means to power, to tell its story about a, newly minted, middle class family being terrorized by their maid (played with wicked fearlessness by then 19-year-old, Lee Eun-shim). During the film the maid goes from being oppressed and mistrusted for her social position, to eventually shifting the house dynamics by becoming her employer’s mistress and eventually becoming the rule-maker.
Mostly discussed for its magnificent use of psychological terror and stylized camp, the film also works as a fascinating study of guilt over social mobility. Is the family in the film being terrorized for its desire of belonging to the middle class? “If only I hadn’t wanted the new house” cries the wife. Remember that during the ‘60s Korea was coming from a long war and had just recently gone through a harsh political division that had one of its halves embracing socialism while the other tried to adjust to less extreme political views. Therefore The Housemaid also shows us a society that had become hostage to its bourgeoisie desires.
Fast forward five decades and Im Sang-soo’s remake of The Housemaid shows us something a little bit different. Now, the middle class family has turned into an obscenely rich clan, led by the vicious Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and his wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo). Their need for a maid comes not because they need someone in order to look after the house while the owners try to make ends meet at work, but because the pregnant wife needs someone to tend to her own particular needs while the rest of the service runs the house. So the quiet Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is hired and quickly trained by older maid Mrs. Cho (Yun Yeo-jong) who hands her a uniform and informs her, “Don’t let them see you in anything else”.
Eun-yi breaks the rule during a family holiday where Hoon, unsatisfied by his wife’s sexual limitations, descends towards her room naked, carrying a bottle of wine and a glass.
He asks the maid to show herself to him and before long she is performing fellatio while he flexes his muscles and drinks from his never-ending bottle. This seduction scene is brilliantly staged by Im, who establishes the notions of power that will be reinforced during the rest of the film. The maid is shown as a submissive creature at the mercy of those who have more than her, while Hoon’s infidelity is overshadowed by an outstanding sexual prowess that makes him both seductive and truly repulsive. Even if he is the one satisfying his libido, it’s only by antagonizing and dominating Eun-yi that he seems to achieve pleasure.
They continue their affair and eventually Eun-yi becomes pregnant. However unlike the original, she is completely oblivious to this and it’s Mrs. Cho who inadvertently finds out before she even suspects it. When Hoon goes on a trip, Mrs. Cho seeks help from Hae-ra’s mother (Park Ji-young) who immediately comes to the rescue of her daughter’s dignity (this dynamic between the elder maid and her employer’s mother is fascinating and deserves an entire movie of its own). She informs her daughter of what’s going on under her very nose and they come up with a plan to make the innocent Eun-yi lose her baby and have everything return to normal.
Im’s attempt at melodrama develops into something altogether more sinister as he changes points of view throughout the movie. This might be the one thing this has in common with its predecessor: the fact that sometimes we wonder who the lead is. In the original version it takes us a while to realize who the main character will be and this one does the same, in fact the film opens with a woman jumping from a building (perhaps as homage to Kim’s sensationalist paper inspiration), we never know what happened to her, but it’s after this when we first meet Eun-yi. “Someone died and you wanna watch?” asks one of her co-workers.
The film’s camp works best at the hands of the exquisite Park, who takes on the role of dragon lady with delightful ferocity. Watching her tell her daughter to compromise and accept her husband’s cheating is nothing short of evil. Her daughter’s response of “What does he see in that cheap, common slut?” is even more astounding. Im balances wonderfully between high camp and high art, the film is filled with elegant travelings and dolly shots that frame the characters’ wickedness in a way that would make Visconti proud.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie is its underwhelming finalé in which Im gets to deliver his Lynchian setpiece with as much oomph as it lacks poignancy. By turning Eun-yi into a victim all he does is subvert our expectations and confuse us. After she announces her revenge Im never really seems to give her any sort of power. Is he trying to say that the rich oppress the poor to the point of tragedy? Why then is he recurring to baroque melodrama, unarguably one of the most polarizing styles, if he never takes an absolute stance? The film’s stylized manner and quotable insults make it a spectacle of morbid entertainment but for all its demonic promises, this is one rather tame potboiler.