The Housemaid

The Housemaid

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

A loose remake of a well-regarded 1960s Korean film of the same name, The Housemaid is a film with certain expectations attached. After all, a fair amount of controversy hovers over its director, Im Sang-soo. His 2005 film The President's Last Bang, which centred on the assassination of Korean President Park Chung Hee, ended up provoking a defamation court case over controversial scenes which ultimately had to be excised from the final cut. However, The Housemaid, fresh from its screening at this year's Cannes, brings a close to the 2010 Korean Film Festival with a bold dash of class-ridden, soap opera rather than court-case controversy.

Young, upbeat but naive Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is hired as a nanny and housemaid by a fabulously wealthy couple - the sophisticated and very pregnant mistress Haera and her effortlessly cultivated husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae). Working alongside the elder and tightly wound housekeeper Choi Byung-shik “Mrs Cho” (Youn Yuh-jung), Eun-yi finds herself warming to the task of looking after the extraordinarily well-behaved daughter Nami. But before long she is embroiled in an lusty affair with the dominating Hoon, a man clearly used to getting and taking what he wants, and she falls pregnant. When Haera's scheming mother comes to stay, she soon fathoms the situation and begins urging Hera to remove this marital threat- by increasingly extreme means.

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This is social satire on a grand scale, but merged with a more serious commentary on the exploitation and oppression of women in Korean society. The deferential Eun-yi's seduction by Hoon seems one of master and servant rather than consensual - his tone and attitude is never anything less than one of entitlement throughout the film. As Haera's mother coldly spells it out for her- men like Hoon will always act that way, why try and stop it if their wealth lets you live like a queen?

Hoon's mansion, which virtually all the action of the film occurs in, is a magnificently rich set for the camera to drink in. Exotic rugs and post modern hanging art float past the lens, as characters lounge on magnificent pianos and repeatedly uncork expensive wines. The level of ostentatiousness is almost comedic, but this wealth makes people, as Mrs Cho bluntly puts it, “scary”. It is this kind of power that naïve interlopers like Eun-yi anger at their peril. The spiral staircases and dark corridors make the mansion a fine setting for the Hitchcock-like series of tragedies that transpire to crush Eun-yi so her decadent superiors can continue their lives untroubled.

The Housemaid is a bold step away from the original film, but it is not without flaws. Audiences who prefer their social satire and erotic drama a little more subtle will be disappointed. The scripting for the characters is also a problem at times, particularly that of Eun-yi. Though actress Jeon Do-yeon puts in a fine performance that is accentuated by her fragile beauty and willowy figure, it is hard to understand her character's actions and motivations in certain key sections of the film. The film's bizarre finale, which features a particular dramatic action by Eun-yi's character, might also baffle. Nevertheless, despite these awkward moments, Im Sang-Soo's remake is steamy, bold entertainment with a dark sense of humour and a lush setting.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2010
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Remake of the 1960 classic about a man's affair with the family's servant.
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Director: Im Sang-soo

Writer: Im Sang-soo, Kim Ki-young

Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-Jae, Ahn Seo-Hyeon

Year: 2010

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: South Korea

Festivals:

London Korean 2010

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