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Housemaid, The (2010)
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by Jay Seaver

"An inverted update of a classic erotic thriller."
5 stars

The original version of "The Housemaid" is widely considered a classic of Korean cinema, the sort of thing one doesn't remake lightly. For that film's fiftieth anniversary, though, that's what Im Sang-soo did, although it's the sort of remake where all the characters' names are changed, the relationships are reversed, and only the very basics remain. It's an almost completely different movie, but just as good, if not better.

There may not be any connection between the girl standing on the edge of a building in Soeul and there being an opening for a housemaid/nanny in the Goh household, but does it matter? They're in the market, and they hire Lee Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), who is attractive and capable and doesn't realize just how far in over her head she is about to get. Her primary charge, young Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon), is a privileged little girl. The mother, Hae-ra (Woo Seo), is pregnant with twins. The father, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), works long hours and is flanked by bodyguards when he returns home. The head maid, Cho Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-jong), has been with the family for decades, knows everything that happens in the house, and reports back to Hae-ra's mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young). When Hoon makes his way down to Eun-yi's room at the vacation home, an affair begins that will lead to not just cracks but radiating fractures in the household.

Is Eun-yi blameless in this situation? Of course not. But one immediately sees how Goh Hoon may be difficult for her to resist. It's not just that he's handsome and wealthy; it's the way that, when he enters a scene, it's immediately clear just how completely he dominates it; he's a man so used to power, financial and sexual, that it radiates from him like an aura. The magnetic properties of this sort of power is the core of this version of The Housemaid - Hoon exercises it casually and carelessly; Hae-ra and Mi-hee plot to retain it; Eun-yi and Byung-sik are drawn into its orbit; and Nami, born to it, is being taught to have the same relation to it as her father. If Kim Ki-young's Housemaid was about the emerging consumer culture trapping people as much as it superficially empowered them, Im Sang-soo's is about the other end of the scale, how this eventually concentrates wealth and power into the hands of a small, unchecked group.

Writer/director Im certainly doesn't settle for anything resembling a dry lecture, though After introducing the audience to the chilly formality of the Goh house, he uses sex to raise the temperature and then starts turning the screws ever-tighter. As much as the situation resembles a pit of vipers, it's never quite so simple. Each character starts out with different levels of trust and different things that each would consider acceptable, although simple murder is seldom in the equation. There are really only a couple acts of physical violence, and while shocking, it's the more subtle, emotional attacks that really crank up the tension - the things that either are easier to rationalize than simply pushing someone from a great height, the bringing out the worst in another person, and the deliberate shattering of bonds. Im pushes things to a point where the last act sometimes skirts the border of madness, but it's never simple, unprovoked madness that motivates the characters; the film's finale may be a bit over-the-top, but it's well-earned.

The cast is small and tight, and playing somewhat heightened characters, but they all shine. Jeon Do-yeon is an interesting choice for the title role, in that it might have been easier to cast someone who's more an ingenue or obvious vixen. Jeon does well in playing Eun-yi as being young and trusting in a realistic way; as much as believing the worst isn't in her nature, it is in the back of her mind. Lee Jung-jae, as mentioned, does well embodying the raw, unquestioned ego of Goh Hoon, and Woo Seo and Park Ji-young have a nifty dynamic as Bae-ra and Mi-hee; you can see a lifetime of the mother pushing the daughter in expedient directions there. Ahn Seo-hyeon is very good as Nami; making a kid innocent but serious and intelligent is no easy task. The scenes are often stolen by Yun Yeo-jong, though - the early, easy tag on Mrs. Cho is that she's one of those servants who identifies more with her masters than her own station, but she's never that easy to pigeonhole, both because of the script and how Yun makes every facet of the character fit together perfectly - she's severe but also the source of some of the film's funnier moments, and can make the phrase "harsh compassion" seem perfectly logical. Her small changes in direction mean a lot to the audience.

This is also a beautifully constructed movie. Part of that is just the setting where the film takes place - it's a somewhat obvious choice to make the Gohs' house comprised of contrasting blacks and whites and elegant luxury, but it's still a good call. Im and his fellow filmmakers have a wonderful knack for using the space on the screen, too - the building seems far too large for the small number of people who live there, and Hoon's study almost seems like another structure within the building. Some shots divide the screen in ingenious ways (the shot of Hoon seeing his very pregnant wife and the accidentally enticing Eun-yi in separate rooms is worthy of applause), and as the plot starts to get tangled, a shot of Eun-yi climbing a staircase takes on an almost Escher-like quality.

Like its predecessor, this version of "The Housemaid" is a little nutty at times, but that's just part of being smart, sexy, and unpredictable. It gives the audience a pair of surreal moments that merit chewing on at the end, and plenty to grab and hold the audience's interest on the way.

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originally posted: 02/20/11 17:01:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2010 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/21/12 Sean Harrison Suspenseful, but lacking greatness. 3 stars
10/27/10 trudy van der hoeven good acting 4 stars
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  21-Jan-2011 (NR)
  DVD: 07-Jun-2011


  24-Jul-2010 (MA)

Directed by
  Sang-soo Im

Written by
  Gina Kim

  Do-yeon Jeon

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