The Housemaid (2010)
aka Hanyo
Reviewed in October 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Im Sang-soo. Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Youn Yuh-Jung, Seo Woo, Lee Jung-Jae, Park Ji-Young, Ahn Seo-Hyeon, Kim Jin-ah, Moon So-ri, Hwang Jung-min. Screenplay: Im Sang-soo (based on characters created by Kim Ki-young in his 1960 film).
Twitter Capsule: Some pulpy energy and occasional smarts, but woozily over-directed, with nothing new to say. Jeon adds what she can.

Photo © 2010 Miro Vision/Sidus FnH/IFC Films
Some of my favorite Korean films of recent years (though I'm hardly an aficionado) have borne out the joy and the thrill to be found in delirious style, in movies that pull themselves affectively together by veering, in formal terms, constantly toward the edge of blowing themselves apart. We feel versions of this tension in the monster mash of horror and slapstick social commentary in The Host, the demented maternalisms and criminalities of Mother, the corpuscular swoops and whooshes of the camera in Thirst, and the somehow immaculate synthesis of discomfiting realism and abrupt, poetic abstraction in Oasis. Within this patently partial grouping, Mother feels like the closest cousin to what Im Sang-soo is up to in his remake of the 50-year-old Korean classic The Housemaid (which can be viewed here for free.) As in Mother, characters in The Housemaid rocket with little warning between behaving as someone in their circumstances might plausibly act and behaving as a radioactive uranium rod might act if dropped into a heated reactor core. But where one amasses a gathering sense of method behind Mother's madness, even as it maneuvers between wholly different registers and in defiance of tonal or sequential expectations, The Housemaid just feels rudely conceived, unresolved, and maybe a little confused about which among its many ideas and impulses are the most interesting.

Im snares our interest but also signals some problems in the early sequence where an anonymous woman (played, if I'm not mistaken, by Oasis's Moon So-ri) climbs over the edge of a tall building in an urban plaza and contemplates whether to jump, though almost no one notices her right away. Her profile and presumed intent are central to the opening shot but not really to the sequence, which gets more and more spatially discombobulated by weaving in and around some generic scenes of unromantic night-life: street vendors cooking on their grills, kids walking in packs, etc. By the time the woman jumps, we've nearly forgotten about her, and aside from tangentially extracting its eventual protagonist from the crowd that feels compelled toward the woman's chalk outline (with all the blood, incidentally, pooled at the wrong end, based on how she fell), the film seems to forget about this sequence, too. The governing tension between the individual and the mass doesn't evaporate as a concern of the movie, but never again is it explored within these roving, elliptical terms. The Housemaid opts instead for a fitfully gripping but generally blunt schema of class relations, overplayed in all senses of the word, that feels unrelated to that sensibility which seems, at the movie's outset, so curious about the complex ecology of urban stress, struggle, listlessness, sorrow, and routine. The most you can say is that the camera and the story of this new Housemaid maintain a love of heights, and of plunges.

Somehow, and too quickly to grasp as anything but narrative expedience, we leap from this prologue into a job interview, in which caustic cook Mrs. Cho (Youn Yuh-Jung) hires diffident, young Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) to be a servant of her own mistress, a nanny to the woman's daughter, and a caretaker to a pair of twins that are already on the way—though, for whatever Gothic reason, this last detail is purposely suppressed during the recruitment interview. When we meet her soon afterward, he rich mistress, Hae-ra (Seo Woo), has far too pregnant a belly, shrink-wrapped in a garishly neon-green workout top and photographed much too ostentatiously in the exaggerated foreground of her introductory shot, for us not to spot something rotten on the horizon. Either Eun-yi is going to want Hae-ra's kids and/or Hae-ra is going to abuse Eun-yi in any way possible as a means of protecting their perceived birthright. And let's assume right now, several minutes before we ever meet Goh Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), Hae-ra's husband, that he's going to be trouble, and that trouble will be spelled S-E-X. Mrs. Cho will either demonstrate a zealous, sapphic loyalty to her glamorous employer or she will feel a surly kinship with Eun-yi, whose social precariousness and increasingly functional existence will remind the older woman of herself, in ways that evoke sympathy as well as repulsion. In fact, Im Sang-soo's screenplay never resolves that choice about Mrs. Cho, and rather than explore such schizophrenia as a rich spring of ambiguity or of credible psychic turbulence, the actress seeks to pardon the dementia written into the role by doing what she can to channel Agnes Moorehead in Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte. She gives such a heaving, showy, frankly tacky performance that someone is bound to call it brilliant.

Even as all the expected tensions and treacheries take shape, The Housemaid has a kind of pulpy thrill to it. Whether or not that opening prologue and the dingy urban aquarium it brought to life ever resurface in the picture, they open a current of mystery and energy that subsides for a good while. The Housemaid's tonal instincts and storytelling thrusts, while never coming within a kilometer of subtlety, are nonetheless most potent when they aren't crudely vulgarizing dynamics of class and gender exploitation in the guise of being "onto" them. The movie lingers on a particularly smelly dumping of seafood debris into a trash truck in Eun-yi's neighborhood, and on the baroque wastefulness of all the decadent food that Hae-ra and Hoon order from Mrs. Cho but never finish eating, so that the cook and the housemaid slurp oysters in fragile solidarity with each other, banished as they are to the kitchen, speaking to each other no more than necessary. On a drive to or from work, Eun-yi crouches by the roadside to relieve herself, while the exhaust pipe of her car steams in the foreground. There's a sense that this character is (or feels) reduced to bodily needs even before her slithery employers manipulate her even more cynically to that position. These are all strange, possibly overcooked images, but The Housemaid rarely lacks some visual kick, and for a while, the relations or implications of these shots are jagged enough that we're able to make our own sense of them, while more or less guessing where things are headed.

Right around the time the narrative makes some particularly nasty disclosures, signaling that the mistress, her own mother, and the embittered Mrs. Cho are all in various ways in cahoots with each other (though not always at the same time or the same way), The Housemaid actually drains itself of tension instead of building it up. Unimaginative and essentially predictable turns of the plot motivate almost every telenovela swerve in the story, with no room for imaginative give, and Im's tendency toward clunky archetype eats away at more and more of the movie. Renowned Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon does what she can with Eun-yi, making the character sympathetic but not bathetically lovable or pitiable. When Hoon, her slicked-back and swaggery employer, shows up bare-chested in her chamber to demand gratification, Jeon puts real gusto into the character's exclamation of sensual abandon, burying her face in his groin and crying, "I love that smell!" The Housemaid is obsessed with dynamics of wealth and power, but Eun is not the dupe of a luxurious lifestyle. She largely walks into a trap because, yes, she's naïve, but she's also doing what feels good to her, money or safety be damned. But as perfidies pile on perfidies, and as the film flaunts the chilly, rococo flair of the massive family estate, the film feels increasingly like a chintzy revenge play in which the characters have nothing left to reveal of themselves, having splattered their ids all over the movie in each of their earliest scenes. One would like to give The Housemaid points for downplaying the phallic rule of the muscular mister, who feels oddly tangential to this universe despite being an easily peggable cad; he doesn't even lord over the movie in his long spells of absence, like the barely-glimpsed emperor of, say, Raise the Red Lantern did. The gratuitous conniving of women, even across lines of class, exerts a stronger grip over each other's destinies than do any of Hoon's personal contributions to their unhappiness, including his reckless impregnating of Eun-yi. As a result, though, The Housemaid seems less ambiguous than deeply confused, doctrinaire about gendered and economic subjugation while also operating from a different set of analytical lenses, and when it gets tied up into a knot about these concepts, you can usually count on Im to try and worm his way out with a showy but unnecessary overhead shot or craning glide.

What we ultimately build toward is double-pronged: a ghoulishly bombastic act of publicly apotheosizing one's own suffering, and an epilogue of the future life that is determined for the characters who survive this memorable climax. Whether this ghostly, frankly bananas coda is a comment on the inevitable perversity of dubiously merited wealth or whether it's more strictly conditioned by the elaborate "revenge," served piping hot, that brings the movie to its showy, tasteless hilt, I could not say. Asking a broader question, would the family have maintained its footing if they hadn't picked the wrong nanny to ruin, or try to ruin, or invite along to ruin herself? The Housemaid is never boring, but its images are slickly handsome in a way that rarely enriches and often coarsens or confuses meaning, and the lurid narrative seems too confident that stripping away complexities automatically unveils a kernel of truth. Artists love to talk about "peeling away layers" as a way to uncover the core of a piece or a character, but sometimes all that results when you do peel away layers is the exposure of a foundation, whose limits or blemishes become even more evident.

Some textures and notes and moments from The Housemaid have maintained a staying power I wouldn't have guessed in the week since I saw it—the tony distastefulness of what looks to be a million-dollar chandelier, the lucid candor of the power couple's young daughter (who takes quickly to Eun-yi, and guesses what her family is doing to the new arrival), the palpable unease that results when the housemaid brings a friend, even more obviously an unpolished prole than she is, briefly into her maid's quarters. I can't deny that the movie makes an impression, but two of those three elements I just listed also belong to the ensemble of subplots and character relationships that The Housemaid significantly loses track of, while hammering home its least interesting themes and dialing up its emptiest stylistic flourishes.

As happened too, then, with one of the Chicago Film Festival's Romanian entries, Florin Şerban's If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, The Housemaid reminds us that some national cinemas are going so strong that even mid-grade output can be sporadically bracing. The flip side of that epiphany, though, and the one that's more tangible while watching the movie, is that no national cinema is immune to the problem of mannered mediocrities riding the coattails of preceding watersheds. I'm not offering a prognosis on South Korean cinema based on the evidence of The Housemaid, but if I found the movie's excesses a bit galling, it's because Im has made a chintzy exploitation thriller that seems to perceive itself as a somewhat posh objet d'art, and because of the residual power of so many siblings and progenitors in the current Korean cinema, The Housemaid will draw an audience at this festival that will probably eclipse the turnouts for lower-profile but much more ambitious and interesting fare. There's a nouveau riche dynamic, then, to The Housemaid's own immature appropriation of a classic template and its own greased path into, for example, a Cannes competition line-up where its presence seems impossible to rationalize. Before you start making movies about the unfair advantages arrogated by social privilege, best to make sure you aren't cashing checks based on other artists' accounts, and are working as hard as possible to earn your own keep. Grade: C+

VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
From the standpoint of originality or risk, Im's Housemaid is basically the movie you'd expect any high-style, sexed-up remake of an already-perverse and vaunted 50-year-old classic to be. My annoyance with the film, which is only feeling stronger as I write about it, is probably steering me to occlude some of the risks Im does take in his editing and narrative sequencing. Some viewers will undoubtedly be more gripped by how he alternates between playing to and playing against the most implacable logics of genre and of class critique. And there's an argument that Korean cinema holds such a powerful sway in current film culture that it's worth getting your eyes on whatever avatars are available to you, in order to keep learning its aesthetics and leading figures—or even its semi-leading figures, which is about where I would classify Im. But loopy leaps, evidenced most strongly by that Guignol resolution and bonkers epilogue, are not exactly what I have in mind in seeking out films that take risks. Building a bridge where none seems possible to build is a breathtaking endeavor, and that's what I feel I observe in Mother and Oasis. Showing your audience how willing you are to jump off the bridge you've only half-assembled is something else, especially when you were more or less working from a pre-vetted blueprint to begin with.
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