Im Sang Soo's The Housemaid is a remake of Kim Ki-young's famed 1960 original, considered by many to be the greatest Korean film ever made. Which makes this new film what, exactly...?
Am traditionally suspicious of 'greatest ever' films, but Kim's black and white melodrama is possibly one of the oddest, sexiest, most fun claimant to the title--which makes its argument for the status more persuasive, in my book. The original Housemaid plays like a breathless sex thriller, a comprehensive catalogue of perversions running at flip-book speed, with the occasional pause to allow a moment of horror to sink in. Kim's camera wheels about, hurtles towards and away from its actors, constantly reframing the mis-en-scene as the characters struggle to reframe their predicament to their advantage (basically a housemaid hired to help a pregnant wife who, in falling in love with the husband, finds herself pregnant, and in competition for control of the family).
Kim borrows liberally from Hitchcock--at one point he has the housemaid deliver a deadly glass of water and Kim's camera follows it closely, the way Cary Grant's fatal glass of milk is delivered to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941) (only Kim one-ups Hitchcock by using water instead of milk--nothing purer, more innocuous than water, after all). Kim also uses a massive staircase straight out of Psycho--only what am I talking about? The two came out the same year; the striking similarity in size and framing between staircases can only be a coincidence, or a case of cinematic zeitgeist. Right? Right?
Kim takes his homages only so far, though; he's a true original when it comes to over-the-top acting, to maintaining a tone that teeters between high drama and low comedy (the boundary strung tight with sexual tension), to repeatedly framing the housemaid glowering behind glass doors, a low-angled camera rushing at her, music blaring in hysterical dismay (I keep thinking of Sadako, ancestor of countless long-haired J-horror wraiths, from Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1988); have we found Sadako's own ancestor? One wonders). The film (based on the true-life case of a housemaid that poisoned her employers' child) is a no-holds-barred, no-holes-barred assault on the Korean bourgeoisie, which at this point in time held a precarious position in South Korea.
Basically willed into being by the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, South Koreans were forced-marched into acquiring all the trappings of middle-class: two-story houses, modern appliances, pianos and--significantly--domestic helpers hired straight out of the countryside. The people felt two ways about the situation; on one side modernization is a good thing (Right? Right?); on the other, they have a complete stranger in the house sleeping with them, sharing and preparing their food, taking care of their young--is it any wonder that they would feel anxious about these changes, and that Kim's erotic horror thriller (a critical and commercial hit) should strike such a sensitive nerve?
Im Sang-soo's 2010 remake doesn't emerge from an equally turbulent moment of history, and you can sense that it doesn't share the original's demonic energy, or libido, or glee. Im has rethought the situation to reflect the changing times: instead of a newly-minted middle-class we have a fabulously wealthy upper class; instead of a naïve country girl freshly trucked in from the country side we have a somewhat nebulously conceived innocent who with her employer's first advances finds a sense of giddy freedom that is, truth to tell, fetching, if not downright charming. The camerawork has settled down from hurtling rush to stately glide; the two-story house under construction has blown up into a gigantic state-of-the-art mansion. Gone are the horror-movie shock moments; instead we have more explicit sex scenes which, while not bad, don't quite have the same sense of transgressive heedlessness of the original.
The characters' situations are reversed--the housemaid is more victim than intruder, the family more malignancy than middle-class target. The film's best moments show the family's machinations, how the wife finds out about the maid's infidelities, how she and her mother plan to deal with the maid and her pregnancy. The husband (Lee Jung-jae, a successful fashion model) is a monster of selfishness and conceit; as explained by his wife, he goes after what he wants and never expects to be disappointed. When the maid bends down to fellate him for the first time, he lifts his arms out in ecstatic triumph, as if he were Superman about to receive Lois Lane's orally delivered blessing...
And so it goes. Ultimately and unfortunately the film collapses into another 'revenge of the social classes' melodrama when it promised to be so much more: a stylish black comedy about how the upper classes feed off of each other, with the hapless housemaid as their pawn. Im is conscious of class distinctions, but doesn't seem to want to do more than repeat cliches about said distinctions, instead of pushing implications to their logical limits. The last thirty minutes loses much of the film's stylish, hard-edged wit, and takes on a kind of limp idealism--pretty much a description of one's experience of this picture. Recommended, but only after seeing the yet unequalled original.
First published in Businessworld, 3.16.12