This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
The original Housemaid, directed by Kim Ki-young in 1960, was a claustrophobic suspenseful masterpiece announcing Korea as a major player on the international cinematic stage. The plot was simple: A family hires a housemaid, and, in doing so, invites ruin into their lives. The housemaid is clearly “off” already, but after the husband – in a weak moment when his wife is away – sleeps with her, the maid turns psychotic. By the end of the film, the power dynamic has shifted, and the family has become prisoners in their own home, dominated and lorded over by the maid who holds all the cards.
Kim Ki-young’s camera slides through the cramped middle-class house, peeking through windows and around corners, creating a tremendously unbalancing effect, with shots repeating themselves, sometimes obsessively, heightening the intensity and the sensation that this time, this time, there will be no escape from the small space.
A vicious social critique of middle-class aspirations (“If only I didn’t want a bigger house,” sighs the wife at one point), Kim Ki-young’s film was a massive hit (financially and critically) in Korea, and changed the Korean film industry forever. It dealt with current issues like infidelity and sex outside of marriage in a courageous manner, and it had bold and stylistic visuals that have influenced a generation of filmmakers.
It is now 50 years later. South Korea’s film industry dazzles viewers around the world, and in this current climate of excitement and anticipation, The Housemaid has been remade by acclaimed director Im Sang-soo. Starring Jeon Do-yeon (2007 Best Actress winner at Cannes in Secret Sunshine) as Eun-yi, the housemaid, and Lee Jung-jae as the philandering husband who seduces her, the remake takes the germ of what was there in the original and inverts it entirely. Instead of a middle-class family who want to buy a television and want to have enough money just to take care of their sickly daughter, the family in the remake is wealthy and live in a virtual palace, high above the fray of the urban streets we see in the opening sequence. The class critique is still there, but instead of chastising those on the low-to-middle rungs of society for wanting more, it points its fingers at the soulless cruelty of the very-wealthy. This is a less interesting choice since the target is so obvious.
In Kim Ki-young’s original, it is the husband’s story from beginning to end. The housemaid is a horrifying “other”, a Fatal Attraction demon from the deep who, once she tastes the air up here, refuses to go back from whence she came. The film is a grim warning to those who stray from marriage (in the last moment, the husband breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, a jolting choice).
In the remake, it is the housemaid’s story. She comes to work at the house, and she is shown the ropes by Byung-sik, the senior maid (in a brilliant performance by Yun Yeo-Jong). Lee Jung-jae’s “Hoon” is a calculating womanizer, with a very pregnant spoiled wife (Seo Woo), and a young daughter who sizes Eun-yi up with a cold solemn face that is endearing and scary at the same time. She is a creepy little kid, but you get the sense she knows her parents are lunatics. Hoon is not getting enough sex from his pregnant wife, and so he sets his sights on the new girl. Eun-yi is swept away by the sex and finds him impossible to resist (there is a great visceral moment when she buries her face in his groin and sighs, “Oh God, I love that smell”). She thrives in the sexual hothouse atmosphere of the mansion. Even the uniforms the maids wear play up the sexual inequalities of the situation: body-hugging grey skirts, tight white shirts, and black pumps with glass heels. The glass heels are the giveaway. They’re stripper heels, for sure, but Cinderella wore glass heels, too.
By removing the struggles of the middle-class from the equation and by focusing on the exploitation of the poor by the very rich, Im Sang-soo has, ironically, removed much of the tension found in the original. We know Hoon is a jerk (put down the wine glass, bub), we know his wife is a spoiled brat, and we know the housemaid is an innocent girl. The film operates from cliché, confirming our preconceived notions about certain archetypes. The villain twirls his mustache leeringly, the damsel in distress wrings her hands. There is pleasure to be had in such broad performances, but a lot of nuance and suspense is lost in the transfer.
The look of the remake, shot for shot, shows the characteristic visual boldness Korean directors are known for. For example, there’s a scene in a hospital waiting room, with a solitary character sitting in a stationary chair. The camera rests on her. Rolling back and forth in front of her is another character, in a wheelchair, passing across the frame. The emotional tension is in the stationary character, it is her scene, but her emotions are made manifest in the restless pacing of the other character in the wheelchair. This kind of old-fashioned “blocking” of a scene in order to show the emotional subtext of any given moment is what the American studio-system used to do so well (when the directors and actors all came from vaudeville and theatre, where blocking was part of everyone’s skill set).
The mansion is another character in the film, filmed in exquisite and almost too-much detail. The space is extraordinary, echoing and endless, reminiscent of the cavernous maze that is Xanadu in Citizen Kane, or the creepy marble-staircased abode inhabited by Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious. The problem with the house, though, is that it is so grand, on such an otherwordly one-percent-of-all-humanity-lives-like-this level, it is hard to know what we should be feeling about it, except envy at the beauty of it or relief that we don’t have to be in charge of cleaning it. Neither reaction is ideal for what should be a psychologically taut and suspenseful film.
Im Sang-soo and his team of set designers put a lot of love and detail into that house, and it shows. But his attention perhaps was needed elsewhere. The original still terrifies. This one, while visually exciting with a shocker of an ending, and a strange coda right out of David Lynch (a nod to the “this has been a public service announcement” ending of the original), does not terrify. It is a beautiful visual statement, with seriously mixed messages. The on-the-nose economic critique does nothing to help excavate the guts of this nasty little tale, because we already know who these people are. Nothing they do surprises us.
There is one notable exception and that is Yun Yeo-Jong’s performance as the head maid, Byung-sik. The actress worked with Kim Ki-young in 1970, appearing in his second film, Fire Woman, and she has had a long illustrious career. Byung-sik maintains a stony face in the presence of her employers and is an efficient and brisk employee. But in private during her off-hours, when she lets her hair down, sometimes in the presence of Eun-yi, but mostly when she is by herself, a chaos of rage and contempt come pouring out of her, giving the film its funniest moments. She lies in the tub, smoking a cigarette, her gestures suddenly blasé and “over it”, and the contrast with her buttoned-up professional behavior is specific, humorous, and eloquent. Every gesture, every look, even the slightest hint of an eye-roll behind everyone’s back, suggests a volcano of rage. Eun-yi confides in Byung-sik at one point and Byung-sik cuts her off coldly, in a tough-dame voice right out of film noir, “Listen. These are scary people, okay?” She’s not wrong. To see Byung-sik flailing about drunkenly in her room, screaming her helpless rage at the camera placed on the ceiling, is to feel the energy that should have been present in the film entire. There is your real class critique. There is the demon emerging from the deep. Yun Yeo-Jong steals the show.
The Korean film industry was, in many ways, launched into the modern era with The Housemaid in 1960. In recent years, Korean films have gained a new generation of passionate fans, due to their creative dazzling style and flashy confident experiments with well-known genres (Chan-wook Park’s exhilarating and bloodthirsty vampire movie Thirst (2009), Bong Joon-ho’s serial-killer-police procedural Memories of Murder (2003), as well as Bong Joon-ho’s more recent The Host, and Mother, to name a few). A film industry is so certain of itself, so confident in its aims, is reminiscent of the studio-system in 1930s and 1940s America, where artistic aims and commercial aims walked hand in hand. It is a rare thing, indeed. There will be misfires. Sadly, Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid is one of them.