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March 08, 2011

The Korean Film Blogathon: The Housemaid

housemaid poster.jpg

Kim Ki-young - 1960

Im Sang-soo - 2010
IFC Films 35mm Film

Two weeks in a row and two new Korean movies playing theatrically in Denver. There must be a law somewhere that says that only one Lee Chang-dong film can play in town, as Secret Sunshine left, and Poetry is now making its theatrical run. I had originally planned to see the new version of The Housemaid a few days ago but felt a bit under the weather. That turned out to work in my favor as the film moved from the smallish screen of the Landmark's Chez Artiste to the bigger and better screen at the Denver Film Society's Denver Film Center.

Now that I've seen Im's version of The Housemaid, I'm left wondering if I would have liked it better had I not seen the original version? I think what caught me by surprise is that this is not a remake in the expected sense but a complete reworking of Kim Ki-young's film, with only a few recognizable elements visible. I've only seen two previous films by Im Sang-soo, A Good Lawyer's Wife and The President's Last Bang. Im is interested in the dynamics of sex and power, individually and intertwined, but I'm not certain what he's trying to say here.

housemaid 1960.jpg
Lee Eun-Shim in Kim Ki-Young's 1960 The Housemaid

I don't know if Kim Ki-young read Robin Maugham's novel, but it's worth pointing out that for some of the similarities, his version of The Housemaid came out three years before Joseph Losey's film, and makes the scheming Dirk Bogarde seem like a polite interloper. In Kim's film, a music teacher who leads an after work choral group at a factory apparently staffed by women, hires one of the factory's lesser employees to help around the house. The wife is not the healthiest woman, the the kids consist of one bratty young boy, and a crippled girl. The new maid endears herself by killing the rat that's been running loose in the house. Even before taking her position in the household, we know this young woman is bad because she's been secretly smoking. If Roger Corman had been looking for a Korean teenage bad girl, if would have been actress Lee Eun-shim. The housemaid eventually has the family working for her in a film that not only anticipates The Servent, but also Fatal Attraction. One of the several scenes of suspense is lifted from Hitchcock's Suspicion with a glass of water instead of a glass of milk.

What was also astounding for me was the compactness of the cinematography. Kim makes great use of single shots with the camera showing people separated by doors and windows. The effect is such to keep all the characters within the house spatially united even when they are acting against each other.

Im's film essentially recasts the title character as a victim. She is first seen working as a cook at a restaurant, sharing a tiny apartment with another woman. It is later revealed that she has had some college education, although there is nothing to explain why is working in poorly paid service industries. Unlike Kim's housemaid, Im's is older, no younger than her late 20s. The household is now that of a wealthy man whose job is never specified. The wife is pampered, and the two just have one daughter. The mother is expecting twins. There is another maid in the house, a much older woman who years ago served as the wife's nurse maid. Im's film is more about the hierarchies of power within the household as expressed by the husband, his wife, her mother, and the older maid.

The husband soon has sex with the new maid, partially due to his wife's pregnancy, but more owing to his sense of prerogative as the master of the house. As would be expected after fifty years, Im's film is more graphic in depicting sex, and Jeon Do-yeon goes where most Hollywood actresses are too timid to tread. An eye popping difference between the two films is that Im's film takes place in a mansion so large, that the two story house from Kim's film could be parked in the entry room with plenty of space to spare. In previous interviews, Im has stated that he wanted his version of The Housemaid to point to the increasing disparity between the rich and poor in Korea.

What Kim is able to do is to deftly, and succinctly, give the viewer enough information on each of the main and secondary characters that makes the film involving from beginning to end. Im seems more interested in conveying certain generalities but his characters are barely two dimensional. It's not that Im's film is bad or badly made, as much as it lacks both the visceral impact or critique of Korean society that marks Kim's original film. Ultimately, whatever Im was hoping to say with his version of The Housemaid seems no more effective than his character's recipe for revenge.

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Jeon Do-yeon in Im Sang-soo's 2010 The Housemaid

For more on Korean films, this blogathon is hosted by New Korean Cinema and CineAWESOME!

Posted by peter at March 8, 2011 08:22 AM


Great piece, Peter. I too thought of The Servant when watching the first version of The Housemaid. And I too wondered if I'd have enjoyed the remake more if I hadn't seen the original first. It's terribly muddled, but then again, I've felt the same about both of the other Im Sang-Soo films I've seen since A Good Lawyer's Wife (which I loved at the time).

Posted by: Brian at March 21, 2011 03:54 AM