The Housemaid
"It's astoundingly beautiful, with the costumes, set decoration and cinematography all sumptuous."

Linh (Kate Nhung) arrives at the mansion with nothing. She explains to the housekeeper (Kim Xuan) that her family has been killed; she's soaked to the skin and her feet are bleeding from the long distance she's walked in search of work. Hesitantly, the housekeeper agrees to take her on, on a trial basis. It's the middle of the First Indochina War and desperate people are not hard to find, but nobody wants to work at Sa Cat, which has been said to be cursed since the deaths of the Captain's wife and child.

You may think you've been here before; indeed, The Housemaid is another in the recent tide of East Asian films inspired by 19th Century Gothic literature with a stylistic fusion that has breathed new life into the genre. As such, it's astoundingly beautiful, with the costumes, set decoration and cinematography all sumptuous. It also really layers on the clich├ęs, an approach not completely redeemed either by its elegance or by its twist.

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The inevitable romance between Linh and the Captain (Jean-Michel Richaud), who is briefly placed in her charge after suffering an injury, is well acted and is the one aspect of the film that really gains from the ending. The vulnerable young woman and socially advantaged older man dynamic is enhanced by the vulnerability of Vietnam itself, with Linh's body subject to her lover's whims as her country is subject to those of the French. The troubled young woman faces similar internal conflicts. For his part, the Captain demonstrates that particular form of innocence that can only exist in concert with potentially dangerous power, but his personal magnetism draws Linh in and she finds him as generous as he is capricious.

Looming over everything is the shadow of the dead Madame Camille (Svitlana Kovalenko), and this is no staid English ghost whose power lies purely in fright. In Vietnam, ghosts will cut you up. Blood blooms as splendidly as everything else in this lavish production, and that's just one part of the horror on display, with other aspects of the history of the estate gradually coming to light. The cook, who shows some early sympathy for Linh, also dabbles in traditional magic, another source of subtle cultural rebellion against French power and Western ways of thinking.

The Housemaid may not be as original as it pretends, but if you like haunted houses, creepy women in black, tragic romance, sinister secrets and dark and stormy nights, you'll find it very satisfying. It's the most stylish production of its kind for years.

Reviewed on: 15 Feb 2018
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A peasant girl who embarks on a romance with the landowner she serves begins to suspect that the spirit of his dead wife resents her.
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Director: Derek Nguyen

Writer: Derek Nguyen

Starring: Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Svitlana Kovalenko

Year: 2016

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Vietnam, South Korea

Festivals:

Abertoir 2017

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