The Housemaid opens with a woman jumping to her death amidst bustling city nightlife. The reaction isn’t as dramatic as you might expect. The people noticed – some even stopped what they were doing – although no one seemed to care. I then spent the next 100 minutes trying to figure out the significance of that scene, since, so far as I can tell, it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. Is it symbolic? If so, of what? Maybe it’s symbolic of symbols; the opening sequence doesn’t say anything, but the audience is still made to think about what it might be saying. I’ve made two attempts thus far with South Korean cinema, first with the horror film Voices, second with the disaster film Haeundae. I didn’t like either one of them. Perhaps I’m too new to the genre to understand what makes it tick.
The actual story is of a housemaid named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), who’s hired by a wealthy family. She tries to connect with the young daughter, Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon), but the girl is an emotionless drone. The wife, Hae Ra (Seo Woo), is pregnant with twins. The husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), has the millionaire act down to a tee – a young and fit businessman who dresses in designer suits, has a taste for fine wine, and plays the piano every morning at breakfast. Hoon begins flirting with Eun-yi, and in due time, a sexual relationship develops. Hae Ra is none the wiser; she’s too busy being the wife of a rich man. However, the elder live-in maid, Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), knows what’s going on. She holds her tongue ... until Hoon starts giving Eun-yi undeserved bonuses.
And this is where I will stop describing the plot. What I can say is the film begins as a simple-minded erotic drama before twisting and turning in the tradition of the worst daytime soap operas, where secrets, revelations, backstabbing, and death threats reign supreme. Other characters are introduced, including Hae Ra’s mother, Mi-hee (Park Ji-young), a woman so venomous she makes Cinderella’s Stepmother look like a saint. Mother and daughter scheme to destroy Eun-yi in the most intimate of ways. As for Beyong-sik, it takes far too long to figure out which side she’s on, and even after she makes a decision, her loyalties remain annoyingly vague. She has been with the family for a very long time; she was once Hae Ra’s nanny, which doesn’t seem so strange until we discover what Hae Ra is potentially capable of.
The film then becomes a bizarre and melodramatic revenge fantasy, one that builds towards Eun-yi’s final act of defiance. She makes a statement, alright, but I’m forced to wonder who she really thinks she’s getting back at. Is it Hoon and his family? If so, how do her actions punish them? Is it herself? This is easier for me to buy into, considering what’s inflicted on her without her knowledge. But even then, what did she hope to gain by being so over the top? I’m trying to probe this character’s mind, but in fact, I should be questioning the motives of writer/director Im Sang-soo; he could have written this character more conventionally, but he instead fed into his ego with an unnecessary display of theatricality. This may account for the inclusion of an epilogue so strange that it borders on the surreal.
The Housemaid is a remake of the 1960 film written and directed by Kim Ki-young, which, for U.S. audiences, would remain virtually unknown for over forty years. In that version, the title character was a femme fatale driven mad by jealousy and obsession. Perhaps Sang-soo would have been better off staying true to Ki-young’s vision; at least then, Eun-yi’s actions at the end would have had some context. As it is, what she does in both inappropriate and inconsistent with the rest of the film – exempting the inexplicable opening sequence, and even then it doesn’t quite work, simply because there’s a noticeable lack of drama. There’s just people standing on sidewalks and leaning over balconies, their expressions stony, their words indifferent.
But now I realize how vague I’ve been. In order to understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to see this movie for yourself – which is strange because I don’t recommend you do that. The Housemaid is overwrought and implausible, a vehicle for overacting, scandalous twists, and drama that isn’t compelling. If this were Americanized, I could see it as little more than a subplot running continuously through the series One Life to Live. The opening and closing segments would have to be excluded, which is fine by me since, by my estimate, they contribute nothing to the overall story. Perhaps the entire movie is like that girl jumping to her death: It’s one big symbolic gesture, not towards anything in particular, but simply towards symbols. It allows us to contemplate its meaning without actually providing us with meaning.
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Chris Pandolfi (Chris_Pandolfi)
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Eun-yi, a middle-aged divorcee, is hired as an upper class family housemaid. But soon enough, master of the house Hoon takes advantage of his social position by slipping into her sheets. Hoon’s visits become frequent and Byung-sik, an old housemaid, reports the affair to Hae-ra’s mother Mi-hee, who plots to give Hae-ra the control over her husband.
Soon Eun-yi miraculously becomes pregnant and wants to keep the baby. This is discovered by the family and she’s forced to have an abortion by Mi-hee despite Eun-yi’s plea to let her keep the baby and leave the house. Mi-hee’s plot backfires when Hoon scrutinizes her for terminating his child, even if that child is conceived illegitimately. Her forced abortion turns Eun-yi’s mental condition for the worst and she decides to take the matter into her own hands.