Housemaid, The (1960)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/09/10 00:36:55
(Worth A Look)
The bookends to the Kim Ki-young's original 1960 version of "The Housemaid" may just elevate a sharp but frantic melodrama to the classic status it enjoys. What happens between is a bit of a messy movie, but what surrounds it does clever things with those events in a way that, honestly, should have been stolen more in the fifty years since.Poor Kim Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu); he's just too handsome for his own good. Girls who work at a Seoul factory (and live in its dormitory) flock to his after-hours music classes for that reason, although he's far too straight-laced and in committed to his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) and children to stray. When he receives a love-note from Kwak Sun-yeong, he reports it to the supervisor, resulting in the girl being suspended and quitting in shame. Ah, but Sun-yeong was put up to it by her roommate Cho Kyung-hee (Um Aing-ran), clearing the competition away. Kyung-hee starts to take piano lessons from Dong-sik, quietly reveling in how their hands touch, and when Dong-sik mentions that their new two-story house could use a housemaid, Kyung-hee recommends a girl from the factory (Lee Eun-shim) - who, naturally, also falls in love with Dong-sik, and who is not just the factory's bad girl, but may also be completely nuts.
Recent Korean cinema has gained an international reputation, in part because even when the genre trappings are familiar, filmmakers often jump in unexpected directions. That's certainly the case with The Housemaid, especially with its heated last act, which takes a sudden detour from the path it seemed to be following, playing out the final confrontations between the Kims and the dueling femmes fatale in a way that might have worked better if it had followed the standard film noir/erotic thriller conventions. It's not a bad ending - Kim Ki-young manages to keep the energy and suspense level high because the audience really doesn't know what's going to happen next - it's just that shock sometimes isn't quite so exhilarating a sensation as seeing the plot threads that Kim seems to have spent the past ninety minutes or so laying down come to a head.
Of course, what makes the movie work isn't so much its story as the subversive way writer/director Kim tells it. The whole plot is driven by shame and propriety, but let's not kid ourselves - nobody is complaining about the heavy rains that blow in whenever the housemaid steps out onto the balcony so that the audience can see Lee Eun-shim soaking wet again and again. Still, the movie isn't primarily about women being conniving or men being vulnerable to temptation, no matter what the audience may be told directly. If anything, it's about the consumer culture starting to take hold in South Korea after a long period of colonial rule and open warfare. There may not be a Korean equivalent to the proverb about how the things a person buys end up owning him or her, but that's arguably what's going on here: A servant may not be property, but she's a accoutrement of a certain lifestyle, and this one eventually has the household in her hands.
(And, considering how much woe surrounds that staircase, the two-story house is a rather mixed blessing!)
As her character winds up taking unexpectedly prominent positions in the story and household, it's fitting that Lee Eun-shim winds up taking center stage as a performer. She doesn't enter the film right away, but there's a wild, maniacal air to her from the start. She attacks the camera and audience, aggressively sexual in a way that none of the other characters would even consider being. Lee adds just enough initial nervousness and paranoia when necessary, but mostly gives us fantastically chewed scenery. In doing so, she makes Um Aing-ran's Kyung-hee seem almost reasonable, despite how calculating Um makes her. And Kim Jin-kyu has the perfect flustered propriety as Dong-sik.
There are sly bits, but what's perhaps the most fun is how heated Kim Ki-young occasionally allows his movie to get; for all the characters' self-denying longing, this is far from a movie about fleeting glances. Lee Eun-shim bangs on the piano in wildly comic exaggeration, and the scene she plays with the child actors just before things really get bad is a bit of comedy as pitch-black as it is hilarious. And then, at the end, Director Kim follows up a frenzied last act with a pair of narrative goofs, marking the intensity of the film as a great lark without diminishing it.I half suspect that the remake that Im Sang-soo has made for the fiftieth anniversery will have all the subtext but lack the level of joyous insanity that makes the original edition of "The Housemaid" so much fun. It's a memorable movie and maybe even a classic, because it mixes a huge dose of lurid, entertaining pulp in with its high-minded ideas.
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