The Housemaid (LKFF)
Less a remake, more a complete reboot of one of Korea’s most well-known (and well-loved) films, Im Sang-soo’s (The President’s Last Bang) take deservedly caused a real stir at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010…
Having lost her job as an elementary school teacher, Lee Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon, Secret Sunshine) sees becoming a junior housemaid and tending to needs of a rich family as a way out of low-paying jobs in Seoul’s 24-hour area.
She quickly falls under the attention of her male employer Hoon (Lee Jeong-jae, Typhoon, An Affair, The Last Witness, Il Mare) and an affair begins, but before too long his pregnant wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo, Paju) and her mother find out. When Hae-ra finds out Lee is not only also pregnant, but plans to keep it, she sets out to make sure there are no heirs to her husband’s fortune other than her own children.
In Kim Ki-young’s original 1960 film, the housemaid was cast as the manipulator of the piece, here she’s the one who’s manipulated and easily too naïve about human nature, and how cruel it can be.
Outside of Cannes, audiences have been somewhat divided between those who know and love the original and see this as not actually honouring the original, and those who understand Im Sang-soo was trying to something different.
For Im Sang-soo, the film was an exploration into the distance South Korea’s ‘super rich’ (as he calls them) has from the rest of the populace. Whereas the original looked towards the similarities between the classes, Sang-soo’s film looks at the differences and even detachment between them.
(He’s even admitted maybe he made a mistake calling it the same name!)
From the universal ‘upstairs downstairs’ theme of class, director Im Sang-soo quickly builds the suspense with a somewhat knowing nod to the audience. We might know just how detacthed Eun-yi’s employers are from someone of her status, how little they value her life, but she definitely doesn’t.
It’s a hugely successful, masterful work from Sang-soo, at points creating a tangible claustrophobia within the confines of the house. It out strips his earlier work on films like The President’s Last Bang, managing to balance the suspense with some very sensual scenes for which he seems better known. (There’s no doubt that Jeon Do-yeon comes across far more sexily than Hoon’s younger wife Seo Woo.)
There’s solid support from the cast, including Sang-soo regular Yoon Yeo-jeong (A Good Lawyer’s Wife, The President’s Last Bang, Actresses) as Eun-yi’s senior maid, who slowly warms to her less jaded junior. Even Lee Jeong-jae is less wooden than we’ve seen him in some of the roles he’s played in the past (I’m thinking particularly of Typhoon)1.
And if the suspense doesn’t carry through to the end, as many reviewers have noted, this too is somewhat deliberate, with a conclusion already hinted in the opening reel. I’ll say no more to avoid giving too much away, but the slightly surreal nature of the closing scene mirrors the directors feelings on how distanced these rich are from our reality.
It’s great and immensely watchable work from a director finally getting properly noticed out side of Korea. Catch it where you can, and let’s hope it gets a wider release in the New Year!
This post was originally published 26 November 2010.
The Housemaid was screened as the closing gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2010, and is released (finally!) by Axiom Films on UK DVD on 25 June 2012.
1. Update 2012: To be fair I hadn’t seen An Affair at this stage!
Distributor: Axiom Films (UK)
Edition: DVD (2012)
I have to admit I'd all but given up on Axiom releasing The Housemaid. Originally slated for release on 24 October 2011 – still over a year after the film caused such a stir at the Cannes Film Festival – the schedule got pushed back and pushed back again, not helped by the Sony Distribution warehouse fire that knocked so many of the UK's independent labels sideways. At one point this was rather worringly described as 'off the schedule'...
Fortunately Axiom have stuck to their guns, and the UK DVD is finally with us! It's a solid release including a making of featurette, trailers, stills gallery and music video. (Though you might almost wish they'd waited a bit longer and optioned Im's latest The Taste Of Money, thematically a continuation of Housemaid for a doublepack.)
Special mention should be made of the beautiful DVD menus. Yes, I know few folks seem to bother anymore (!), but these really are a treat, nicely designed with sophisticated transitions.