There’s a strangeness to contemporary South Korean Cinema that I find intriguing. An alluring sense of the uncanny seems to pervade its film stock, as though the South Korean worldview is just a tad bizarre, as though its gaze falls on a spot just slightly aslant from that of others, and of my own.
This darkly idiosyncratic gaze is definitely a captivating one, and when combined with a stalwart sense of cultural and societal scrutiny – which it often is – the results are reliably delicious. Films such as Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) and <Mother (2009), Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010), Kim Ki-duk’s Samaritan Girl (2004) and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) weave this mood of sinister trepidation with visual panache and biting social critique. The Housemaid, the latest cinematic endeavour from controversy-courting Korean director Im Sang-soo, is another instance in point: it is a sleekly styled and darkly comic thriller, fuelled by lust and heady with malevolence.
The Housemaid is a remake, or rather a revisiting of some of the central themes and concerns of the 1960 Korean classic of the same name. Directed by Kim Ki-young, the original Housemaid is a psychological thriller of sexual obsession and manipulation, whose eponymous protagonist is a chillingly psychopathic seductress and scheming social climber. When asked to conjure a new incarnation in an act of homage, to be released 50 years after the original, Im Sang-soo leapt at the opportunity to tackle a savagely sensual plot and simultaneously probe into the ways that South Korean society has changed in the last fifty years.
Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn), a beautiful ingénue, is hired by an incredibly wealthy family as a nanny to an eerie little girl, Nami (Ahn Seo-hun), and maid to the mistress of the manse, Hae-ra (Seo Woo), who is in the throes of an operatically strident pregnancy. Hae-ra and her Machiavellian mother, played with cold brutality by Park Ji-young, weave manipulative webs from the shadowy corners of the manor, and tolerate the whims and flings of the master of the house, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), in return for the power and privilege his fortune brings them. Hoon, as the epitome of entitlement, takes whatever he wants, and when he initiates a sexual relationship with Eun-yi he sets the scene for lustful apprehension, savage hedonism, revenge and unbridled maliciousness.
Working alongside Eun-yi is the family’s housekeeper, the elaborately coiffured and formidable Byung-sik (Youn Yu-jung), who rules her domain with an air of disquieting clout, in a similar vein to Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Byung-sik is controlled, controlling and knowing, and just as manipulative as her mistress, Hae-ra; she stalks the corridors of the mansion intimidatingly, listening at closed doors and sowing seeds of strife and discord. The house itself is immaculately decorated and stylishly stark, full of sleek, gleaming surfaces and cavernously high ceilings. As a setting it is both enticing and forbidding, and the perfect theatrical backdrop for the manipulative ploys and vengeful machinations of its inhabitants.
This film is a satirical representation of wealth, power and control. The three women at its cold, blighted heart occupy radically divergent positions in the social hierarchy, and respond to the demands of the conniving games they play with the cards they’ve been dealt. These social positions aren’t fixed, though: in the course of the film Eun-yi reveals herself to be more than just sweetly naïve, and she is able to unsettle the carefully composed structure of the household and the ideology underpinning it. If the sexual politics of the film are fraught and somewhat retrograde – these women fight brutally for (sexual) power bestowed by the favour of inherently powerful men – the overarching mood of erotically charged intrigue and menace is riveting. The performances, especially Youn Yu-jung as Byung-sik, are captivating. The film’s images are tightly controlled and beautifully composed, and its humour is dark and aberrant. If Im Sang-soo is a subtle as a sledgehammer at times, his penchant for deeply unsettling and seductively ambiguous filmmaking makes up for it. This is sexy, gripping cinema.
Ken Knight is a Melbourne-based writer.