REVIEW: The Housemaid Seduces with Shallow But Stylish Pleasures
Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid is a lush, chilly entertainment that's a little bit Hitchcock (in its wickedness and coolly composed visuals) and a little bit Sirk (in its numerous over-the-top flourishes, often involving disastrous household accidents). In the end, it's perhaps not enough of either. But the picture glides by on its stylishness and on the strength of its performances. What it lacks in passion it makes up in bravado, and its showiness alone is seductive.
Eun-yi (played by Jeon Do-Yeon, who won the best actress award at Cannes in 2007 for her role in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine) is a young woman of modest means who takes a job as a nanny in the household of a rich businessman, Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), whose spoiled, petulant wife, Haera (Seo Woo), is expecting twins. The couple also have a young daughter, a somber child who makes her first appearance in a black trench-coat and a Louise Brooks bob -- she's a mini-fashion plate in training.
This is a household in which the rules are very formal, and they're matched by the formality of the filmmaking. Every shot is as deliberate as the gleam on a lovingly polished candlestick. It's a fine setting for intrigue, seduction, power plays and the scheming of womenfolk, and Eun-yi gets drawn in fast. Her chief problem, it seems, is the older housekeeper who has worked for the family for years. Byung-sik (Yun Yeo-Jong) is a regal, disapproving presence, though as the story unfolds, it becomes clear she can't decide whether she wants to take Eun-yi under her wing or hold her at arm's length, like an unpleasant-looking insect. In one of the picture's most marvelous scenes, she lounges in the tub of the bathroom the two women share, expounding on her bitter philosophy of life; later, she apologizes to Eun-yi for not being "warmer" to her, though, touchingly, her apology is a kind of warmth itself.
Eun-yi is a bit of a mystery not just at the beginning of The Housemaid but throughout, and when she succumbs to Hoon's seduction, it's not fully clear why. Then again, he is hot. (Lee is, incidentally, a successful model in South Korea.) And when he invites Eun-yi to partake of his magnificent manhood, he spreads his arms mightily like King Kong, though he's only the master of the household and not a whole jungle.
Needless to say, this household is abuzz with sexual tension, and there's evil afoot too, as Eun-yi learns. If only Im (who also wrote the script) had simply let the story's juiciness flow freely, instead of trying to make it deeper than it is. Class consciousness, power plays between the sexes, the fierceness of a woman scorned: the movie picks up all of these ideas, fingers them idly, and then sets them aside, never fully working any of them out.
That's also somewhat true of the original version of The Housemaid, made by Kim Ki-young in 1960; still, this new rendering -- which is less a remake than a considered reassembly of some of the earlier picture's various parts -- pales in comparison. The 1960 Housemaid -- which you can watch for free here, at the fabulous movie resource MUBI -- is far more tawdry, and more unsettling, than this new version, and it's fascinating for the way it tries to dab moral lessons around its characters, some of whom engage freely and gleefully in the most gratuitously sick behavior. (The plot involves a bad-gal cigarette-smoking housemaid who seduces a previously stalwart husband, father and hardworking piano teacher; blackmail, rat poison and death by heartbreak all figure in the mix.) This new Housemaid is exceedingly tame in comparison. Its amorality is glossed on with a brush; in the original, depravity radiates from the movie's rotten-beautiful core.
But that doesn't mean this new Housemaid isn't fun. Im has a flair for highly controlled melodrama, and his visuals show a knife-edge precision: You could cut yourself on all these crisp shadows. In one scene, when Byung-sik discovers Hoon and Eun-yi engaged in their illicit high jinks, her face is lit as carefully as if she were a '30s movie star -- the flush of disgust that crosses it is like a particularly radiant kind of pancake makeup.
All of the actresses here are fun to watch -- Jeon, playing a character who's by turns innocent and vengeful, bears a passing resemblance to Ellen Page -- but Yun's portrayal of the embittered-but-sensible Byung-sik is the most compelling. There are times when she looks as if she's smelled something bad, and sure enough, she has -- it's the rotten soul of this household, where she's been a paid prisoner far too long. Byung-sik isn't an easy character to read, but Yun illuminates her small mysteries, bit by bit, with great skill and grace. The performance is as efficient as the clickety-clack of Byung-sik's heels on the mansion's impeccably tiled floor, but it's ultimately moving, too. The Housemaid ends with a crazy, pyrotechnic curlicue. But it's Byung-sik's persnickety disapproval that gives the film most of its life.