For those interested in genre cinema, the films of South Korea have long been the source of some of the most intriguing and intoxicating filmic experimentation seen in recent years. Directors like Chan-Wook Park and Joon-Ho Bong have proved themselves dexterous in crafting films that blend a myriad of tones and themes in a dizzyingly precise fashion.
Enter Sang-Soo Im and his film “The Housemaid,” a remake of the 1960 film of the same name. With this latest effort, he places himself squarely in the company of Park and Bong with a film that is as captivating as it is nonsensical.
The film centers around a young woman named Eun-Yi—played by Do-Yeon Jeon, the star of Chang-Dong Lee’s wonderful film “Secret Sunshine”—hired by an extravagantly wealthy family to be their live-in maid. Very quickly, the spritely Eun-Yi is wrapped up in a sordid love affair with Hoon—played by Jung-Jae Lee—the self-indulgent man of the house. Eventually, Hoon’s wife and mother-in-law become privy to the situation and deem Eun-Yi a danger to their prominent social status. A plan to dispose of her is swiftly put into practice.
For all its soap opera sensibilities and maudlin characterization, “The Housemaid” never feels trivial because of Im’s refusal to let the audience ever feel comfortable. Opposed to having the story unfold like a predictable domestic melodrama, he creates an atmosphere of salacious sexuality and capricious intrigue. At the same time, Im works mostly in low-angles and offers a saturated yet vibrant color palette that harkens back to not only the original film but also the stark stylizations of ’50s Technicolor. It’s bold formalization but Im’s bawdiness works in spades.
In equal turn, “The Housemaid” is bitingly funny in its satirical ruminations on bourgeois ideologies—most notably in the character of Hoon, the distinguished wine connoisseur and prodigious piano player whose closed-door behavior borders on sociopathic. Im has the same unrelenting sense of humor as France’s Claude Chabrol, a director who also never missed the opportunity to lampoon the over-privileged.
But despite its visual splendor and easily reached genre elements, there’s a tone of seediness pulsating just outside the frame. Im does a fine job of filling every frame with a salient sense of absurdity, raising the stakes until it all culminates in a pair of scenes as mind-boggling as they are satisfying. As Im toys with themes of adultery, class and domesticity, he simultaneously explores ideas of eroticism, prostitution and social climbing beneath the surface—things that play a deceptively prominent role in the lives of each character and help shape the film’s final, jaw-dropping moments.
A large part of the intrigue surrounding “The Housemaid” is due to figuring out exactly what kind of movie it is: an erotic psychological thriller, a pitch-black comedy of manners or a hyper-sexual melodrama? In truth, the film is each of these things, and the audience is able to recognize the standard themes and motifs present in the narrative. But as Im plunges Eun-yi into a world of depravity and carnality, our expectations are thrown by the wayside. Before long, it’s difficult to dismiss the more preposterous aspects of the film, thanks to Im’s masterful balance of conflicting moods.