You’ve Been Served
by Genevieve Yue
Dir. Im Sang-soo, South Korea, IFC Films
Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid, released in 1960 and rediscovered internationally roughly forty years later, seems an unusual pick for a national treasure (and for the time being, it can be viewed for free on Mubi). Pulpy, lurid, and grotesque, the film fuses melodrama and horror, and is unlike the realist works that dominated Korean cinema during its brief golden era, more resembling the supernaturally inflected ultraviolence of the New Wave films that exploded in the early 1990s. It comes as no surprise that Kim’s films, The Housemaid chief among them, with their stylistic daring and brazen address of social taboos, are cited as major influences among Korea’s top auteurs, including Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-duk, and Park Chan-wook. In 1997, the year Kim’s work was featured in a retrospective at the Pusan Film Festival, the cult veteran seemed poised for a comeback until he and his wife died in a tragic house fire.
Before Im Sang-soo’s version premiered at Cannes last year, The Housemaid had already been remade four times by Kim himself, each version further twisting an already deformed tale of a ferocious femme fatale who enters a middle-class home and tears apart its nuclear family. With its discordant clumps of piano chords, a recurring bottle of rat poison, incessant rain, and an ominous staircase, this psychosexual morass has earned Kim comparisons to Poe and Buñuel. It is, in a word, weird, that Im’s Housemaid resembles the former only superficially by retaining the same basic plot and not much else. Normally I find the tendency to measure remakes or adaptations against their implicitly superior originals rather unhelpful, but the problem with Im’s Housemaid is that without its predecessor to give it structural heft, it’s only a flimsy façade.
Im, who has only recently emerged on the international festival circuit, is best known in Korea for his interest in political melodrama, tackling major historical events and infusing them with sex and scandal. From the fictionalized revision of the 1979 assassination of President Park Chung-hee in The President’s Last Bang (2005) to the troubled legacy of the Gwangju Massacre in The Old Garden (2006), Im uses the past to, on some level, indict the present, a sentiment he expresses vividly in the depiction of a rotting bourgeois family in A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003). In this vein, The Housemaid is a fitting choice for Im’s class vitriol, though the result is drained of the original’s poison. Im has admitted in interviews that he’s “not a fan” of Kim’s work, and while it’s clear he’s selectively borrowed from the previous Housemaid, he’s also turned intensely inward with his production, creating a hermetic, lifeless world that relates little to the larger cultural concerns that animate his earlier films. Aside from a bustling city street scene that opens the film or the enigmatic coda, set in a wintry terrain where English is spoken, Im’s film is oddly particular: a series of sterile set pieces that reveal little about the characters inside the house or the world beyond it. Even if we were to accept the film as an allegory for the abuses that come with the power and privilege of Korea’s wealthiest classes, it still doesn’t develop its thesis beyond ham-fisted accusation.
Set and made fifty years after Kim’s landmark, Im’s iteration transforms the feverish, feral housemaid into the child-like Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn), hired to work for the Goh family: the trim and powerful Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), his vapid and very pregnant wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo), and their eerily poised daughter, Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun). Here, the husband seduces the housemaid, and with the added characters of Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung), an older housemaid tasked with training the wide-eyed newcomer, and Mi-hee (Park Ji-young), the malevolent mother-in-law, it is arguably Eun-yi who suffers the only downfall, rather than the entire family. The more notable shift is the difference between Kim’s postwar middle class in crisis—a composer and his wife desperately climbing the social ladder (while literally falling down the stairs of their new two-storey home)—and the fortified decadence of Hoon’s mansion, the stone edifice of which resembles a mausoleum.
In some ways Hoon has achieved what the family of Kim’s version was vying for: a life of languid and empty wealth, not that anyone seems to be enjoying it. On an enormous and uncomfortable-looking settee, Hae-ra listlessly flips through pages of Matisse reproductions, and later, as the family listens to opera and sips expensive French wine, the gathering seems less an opportunity for quality time than a demonstration of an elaborate stereo system. Im, who designed the set, reportedly the largest in Korean film history, is obsessed with these kinds of details, lingering on a long gas-lit fireplace, Hoon’s grand piano, an obligatory Herman Miller chair, and a Michelin-worthy kitchen. This is the kind of luxury that cinema is so good at magnifying in sumptuous, wide-angle detail, and from the crane shots that glide over the house’s gleaming surfaces to the low angles surveying walls adorned with Western-style, modernist painting, the film equates the family members with the cold, inert objects in their midst. Not only cold but frozen, as Im’s film seems continually shrouded in winter. Aside from the last five minutes, which conclude in a distended thaw, the film is too composed, static, and slick, and even the supposedly controversial sex scenes lack heat, amounting to little more than artfully arranged bodies and ample wine-swilling.
Eun-yi, of course, is the focus here, a young divorcée who worked as a dishwasher before entering the Gohs’ palatial digs. Where the notorious role of the original housemaid both established and destroyed Lee Eun-shim’s career, there are no such risks for Jeon Do-youn, who, following her electrifying performance in Secret Sunshine, a role that earned her a best actress award at Cannes, is all but wasted as the timorous housemaid. Im, who also wrote the script, flattens her into a cheerful, trusting innocent, pure-hearted (as we’re told several times in the film), and as Byung-sik archly observes, either naïve or dim-witted. Eun-yi is one of the last to realize she’s pregnant with Hoon’s child, or that her hospital stay, caused by an incident involving a Roomba and a ladder, was more than mere accident. By the time she’s made her psychological plunge, signaled by increasingly darkened shades of lipstick, the suspense has all but fizzled out.
More frequently it’s the keenly observant Byung-sik who captures our attention. Played by Youn Yuh-jung, an actress who got her start as a Kim housemaid in Woman of Fire (1982), she’s wary, wry, and blessed with great comedic timing. When she rolls her eyes at the sound of Boon exercising his droit du seigneur over the new maid, she gives off the weary sense that this has happened before, and she’s the only one to remember it. Being the most conflicted character, Byung-sik also commands the film’s emotional center, and when she admits to a bewildered Eun-yi the nefarious scheming the women of the household have been plotting against her, we see a flash of her own grief and guilt otherwise nestled deep in her matter-of-fact delivery.
How in a mansion as vast as this, and with a family so extravagantly endowed, could there only be two servants? Though there are allusions to other staffers, we see Eun-yi shouldering most of the work as a cook, a maid, a nanny, and the one who attends to Hae-ra’s prenatal yoga sessions, even washing the woman’s hair and administering her mani-pedis. The overburdening of Eun-yi is telling: in the Goh residence as well as Im’s film, the housemaid is made to do too much. Women, especially beleaguered ones, are often made to stand in for their nations onscreen, and if we were to understand the film as an allegorical attack on Korea’s rapid rise to wealth, its Westward-facing consumerism turned away from its common classes, Eun-yi stands out as the suffering synecdoche of a nation seduced and ultimately betrayed, thrashed about by invisible forces like the woman inexplicably driven to suicide at the beginning of the film.
But without revealing The Housemaid’s denouement, an ambiguous retribution no doubt calculated to provoke “controversy,” there’s something very ugly about how Im details the plight of women in this film. Though Eun-yi’s demise arrives at the hands of other women, it’s rationalized as reinforcing the patriarchy she supposedly threatens. Compare this to Kim’s vision of 1960 Korea: a shakily middle-class family under attack, not so much by the fearsome woman who catalyzes its demise, but by the internal fissures already present. In Im’s Korea fifty years later, the family unit is more resilient, and the culpability of women more entrenched. What does it mean, for example, when we see Hae-ra reading The Second Sex? Is this an insidious inversion of Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal feminist text, reduced to a pastime of the idle rich, or is the evocation of the book meant to rattle the foundation of the film’s gargantuan house?
Kim once said that he made his films for women, who in the 1960s and 70s were the primary moviegoers in Korea, and as much as his housemaids were voracious homewreckers, they at least had some bite. Eun-yi’s virtue, if it can be described as such, is dangerously submissive. When she accepts Hae-ra’s bitter slaps or whimpers to Hoon, “sorry for getting pregnant with someone like me,” Im steers us into sympathy with her, presenting as a feminine ideal the kind of woman born to suffer, and worse, one that apologizes for it. De Beauvoir’s groundbreaking insight in The Second Sex was to assert that “[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In other words, choice, not biology, dictates the way a woman lives her life. Yet every time Eun-yi is offered the choice to leave the mansion and her circumscribed fate within it, she refuses her freedom, her life, her very self, until she’s nothing but a housemaid sealed forever in this chilly tomb.