High-class trash: The Housemaid (Sang-soo Im, 2010)

This film is a remake of Ki-young Kim’s artsy melodrama from 1960, in which a middle-class family is turned upside-down by a housemaid who seduces the husband and uses blackmail to her advantage. Director/writer Sang-soo Im alters the story here by making the family incredibly wealthy and adding a fair amount of sex; the latter presumably makes the story “edgier”, while the former courts audiences, both in Korea and beyond, who can’t get enough of K-dramas that centre around royalty, or people who are so rich that they may as well be. He also takes a female character who challenges conventions of class and gender and makes a victim out of her. The result is a beautifully made and often gripping film in which tastelessness and pretention uncomfortably mingle. To my mind, the film’s treatment of the housemaid is what truly sours it.

Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) is a divorcee with an incomplete degree in education and no children. When she’s invited by Byung-sik (Yeo-jeong Yoon) to join a wealthy household as a maid and child minder, she quickly forms an attachment to young Na-mi (Seo-Hyun Ahn). Hae-ra (Woo Seo) is expecting another child, while her husband, Hoon (Jung-jae Lee), immediately notices Eun-yi’s beauty. Byung-sik is loyal to the family, owing them her son’s career, but she understands how cruel they are, and how degraded she is by working for them. She is both a mentor and a traitor to Eun-yi.

Whereas the housemaid of the original film was shockingly daring and manipulative, here, Eun-yi has only a few, simple motivations. She’s attracted to Hoon, likes being paid for having sex with him, and loves children. She’s naïve enough to not see the consequences of her actions – not even that she could be doing other people harm. Presumably, the fact that she can have any innocence about her is meant to be the shocking part of this film. Never mind that the huge power imbalance between her and Hoon makes any consent she gives to his advances highly dubious – knowledge of the original film and the way that this one is marketed combine to try to convince the viewer that Eun-yi must have deeper, more sinister motives.

All the women in the film have reason to hate Hoon in one way or another, but his money keeps him safe. Hae-ra seemingly can’t do anything to her husband, who started the whole affair and gave barely any thought to contraception. She may read The Female Eunuch while laying about her palatial mansion, but Hae-ra takes her rage out on Eun-yi, trying to kill her and ensuring she has a miscarriage.

What’s most egregious about The Housemaid is that it makes the viewer question how much of a victim Eun-yi is and then has her step all too readily into the role. Observing the aftermath of a woman jumping to her death at the beginning of the story seems to be her inspiration for solving her problems: grief-stricken over her miscarriage, she hangs and immolates herself in front of the whole family. It’s clear that this act is pointless; there’s no way she can hurt these people, and only destroys herself.

The film changes abruptly in its final shots. These take a surreal tone, showing the family holding a birthday celebration for Na-Mi. In seeming defiance of good sense, they’ve laid out chairs and carpets on wintry ground, with multiple maids on hand. A sign displays the names of American pinups, including Rita, Betty, Jean and Marilyn. Na-mi wanders to the edge of the tableau, looking offscreen.

The names on that sign, to me, emphasise that beauty is no defence against being abused and rejected, even if the family want to ignore that. Maybe that’s what Im is going for, or perhaps he’s placing the blame for everything we’ve just seen on American cultural imperialism. This, however, would ignore the fact that The Housemaid fits into a specifically Korean genre with a huge amount of cultural clout. In shifting its style this suddenly, the film seems desperate to prove that it’s more than trashy entertainment with slick production values, like so many popular K-dramas.

And yes, I realise that Im was probably indicating that Na-mi will remember Eun-yi and will not grow up to be as callous as the rest of her family – but I don’t really believe that Eun-yi achieved this, or that she chose the best way to do it. I’m not interested in seeing Im try to further prove his point in his semi-sequel, The Taste of Money, either. Look around in search of reviews for that film and you’ll see that not many people were.

The Housmaid is watchable and sexy (as long as you don’t mind that all the sex emphasises Hoon’s power over the women around him). The actors are suited to their roles and do fine work. The oversized interiors of the family mansion, colourless apart from the bedrooms and the blazing wall-length fireplace, show exemplary art direction. This film would have been better off, however, if it had not pretended that it has anything meaningful to say.

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