Housemaid, The

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–A weird, voluptuous and thoroughly strange meditation on class and sexual warfare concerning the aftermath of an affair that rips apart a powerful South Korean family, Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid” is a rebuke of its very source.
"The Housemaid" is, fully acknowledged, a remake of the foundational 1960 movie of the same name. The original, directed by Kim Ki-young and produced in the decade following the brutal and exhaustive civil war, is the Korean equivalent of “Birth of a Nation.” Im’s remake is effectively a critique of that film, inverting the sexual politics of the original to draw out the vicious class divisions and social disruptions of contemporary South Korea.
Best known here for “The President’s Last Bang,” Im is a talented satirist with a strong visual sense for composition, color and light. In contrast to the original, Im’s movie is set against the rapidly changing social and sexual mores of an innovative and dynamic country whose explosive growth has created profound social disparities in income, wealth and privilege.
The movie’s prologue, both disarming and elliptical, establishes the movie’s strange and sometimes discomfiting tone. It opens in reverse close up of a young woman the moment before she leaps to her death, watched, curiously, sadly, by a group of workers, foreigners and strangers walking the streets.
It no doubt helps to know the first film to appreciate the new version’s allusions, alterations and critical differences. The great actress Jeon Do-Youn (who gave a mesmerizing performance in 2007 Cannes entry “Secret Sunshine”) plays the movie’s eponymous character, Eun-yi. She is hired nanny for the family of Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), a powerful and wealthy industrialist who’s a persuasive representative of the country’s new wealth and the arrogant entitlement of the elite.
He and his wife, Hera (Seo Woo), have one daughter, the precocious Nami (Ahn Seo-Hyun). Hera is pregnant with twins. In the first film, the lead character is a provocateur and sexual instigator whose affair with the husband unravels the family’s carefully aligned role and social order. Im inverts the sexual politics on one level. The magnetic and beautiful Eun-yi proves irresistible to the sexually predatory Hoon.
Im also complicates it by making Eun-yi a fairly willing participant. He suggests, in part, that she is naturally rhapsodized by his power and wealth. The prelude to their first emotional exchange is a revealing and sexually suggestive moment where Hoon spies on Eun-yi performing one of her jobs inside the family’s bathroom.
The already charged sexual equation of the powerful man and his now complicit employee is exploded further by the interference of the movie’s two other significant characters, Byung-Shik (Youn Yuh-Jung), the loyal though somewhat cynical and bitter lead maid and custodian of the family’s business and private affairs, and Hera’s viper-like mother (Park Ji-Young).
The filmmaker imaginatively maps out the shared power agreements and entwined social dynamics of the different classes. Needing access to the family’s power in order to sustain the rapid rise of her son’s own political and professional ambitions, Byung-Shik informs Hera’s mother-in-law of the affair and reveals her own suspicion that Eun-yi is pregnant.
If the opening hour was dominated by lusciously baroque camera movements and a certain self-containment, the second half is more berserk, radical and generously open-ended. Loaded with that information, the pernicious mother-in-law immediately seizes on the information to launch her own attack. She stages a vicious attack disguised as an accident that sharply underscores the stakes.
By luxuriating in the ostentatious wealth and privilege of Hoon, Im drenches the movie in a kind of hyper strangeness. What elevates the material is the blunt though sharp observational sexual politics and emotional manipulation that turns each player into a self-absorbed, vengeful agent of their own destruction. The characters are manipulative, harsh, greedy and nasty. The movie’s subversive effectiveness is how Im either denies or fortifies each character’s own unmasking or vicious comeuppance.
The extreme class consciousness is a painful reminder of the country’s strange political and cultural schizophrenia. “I’m sorry for having an affair with somebody so far above me,” Eun-yi says, without irony. It is finally her resistance to the perceived social norms that splinters and fragments the narrative into its final confounding shape.
It ends spectacularly, strangely, a form of annihilation that leaves nobody unscathed. Im’s underlying concerns seem malignant and helps point out perversely the family’s rise has become so complete, they exist in a world of their own devious and malicious making. It gives it all a judicious and merry kick.