I was introduced to Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid late last year at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival with a screening of the World Cinema Foundation’s restored print. I’m not sure exactly what I expected from the film’s reputation – apparently a “consensus pick as one of the top three Korean films of all time.” – but I was certainly surprised by the lurid melodrama I was presented with.
The Housemaid was defined by jagged slashes of sex, violence and exaggerated overacting. It’s not that its reputation as a classic was entirely undeserved, mind. The domestic set around which the tale of adultery, abortion and rat poison is memorably claustrophobic, photographed with rare skill as the camera slides from window to window (recalling Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise). And the silliness of Lee Eun-shim’s lip-licking performance as the titular housemaid is impossible to forget. I can’t get entirely behind its canonisation, however, mostly due to its heavy-handed message that the lower class are sex-hungry maniacs.
Kim Ki-young went on to remake this film a handful more times (and I’m eager to check out Fire Woman 82, which looks to match the vivid material with a blood-soaked aesthetic to match), so it makes sense that someone else would eventually step up to the plate to put their own stamp on the narrative. Im Sang-soo filmed a remake in 2010, but his interpretation falls far short of its source material, borrowing little but the broad plot outlines (maid sleeps with her master; gets pregnant) and lacking anything that made the original so memorable.
The shift to contemporary times comes with an exaggeration of class divisions; the housemaid here, Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), lives in a cramped apartment that stands in stark contrast to the rich, glossy-magazine mansion that her employers inhabit. There’s the potential to prise open such divisions with more nuance than Ki-young, but Sang-soo simply shifts the villainess role from the housemaid to her employer’s wife (Seo Woo) and mother-in-law (Park Ji-young). (Said employer, played by Lee Jung-jae, gets little to do than show off his abs in some sex scenes that are too silly to be sexy and too sexy to be silly.) The script is flipped – now the upper-class are the bad guys! – but it feels less contemporary than conventional.
This would be forgivable if Sang-soo’s style was in the same league as Ki-young, but while he intermittently demonstrates a good eye – a shot framing the husband between his wife and maid is clever, if obvious – he’s too inconsistent to succeed. The aforementioned glossy-magazine modernist architecture and crisp fashion is an uncomfortable fit for the inexplicable use handheld and Dutch angles. The story is all over the shop tonally, too, veering from self-serious melodrama to attempts at eroticism to eventually (and most successfully) complete absurdity in the final minutes. Sang-soo goes through the paces, but he lacks the vitality or purpose to effectively emulate his predecessor.