AFI Fest 2010
By Don Simpson | November 27, 2010
Director: Im Sang-soo
Writer(s): Im Sang-soo (screenplay), Kim Ki-young (characters)
Starring: Ahn Seo-hyeon, Woo Seo, Jeon Do-yeon
Im Sang-soo’s 2010 hyper-modern modernization of Kim Ki-young’s classic 1960 film The Housemaid is bookended by suicides. The opening suicide is of an unnamed young woman who stands alone on a balcony above a busy street corner. Visibly distraught, the fear and anger on her face is juxtaposed with young men and women enjoying their evening and everyone else carrying on with business as usual. Upon plummeting to her death, some people ignore her, while others crowd nosily around the mangled body. The deceased Jane Doe, with no apparent relationships with any characters in the film, leaves us to ponder: what role does this first suicide play in the grand scheme of Sang-soo’s film?
Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon) is a young divorcee who we first meet while working in the kitchen of a restaurant. Barely making ends meet, Eun-yi shares a tiny apartment (and a tiny bed) with her only known friend; so when Byeong-shik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), a.k.a. “Miss Cho”, comes to recruit her as a live-in nanny for an all-to-perfect upper-class family, Eun-yi jumps at the opportunity.
Hae Ra (Seo Woo) is expecting twins in the very near future, but, for now, Eun-yi’s primary focus is to take care of Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon). In this new role, Eun-yi’s naïveté and childlike nature become very apparent; it is not until Hae Ra’s husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) ogles Eun-yi as she bends over the bathtub in her very short skirt, that we begin to comprehend just what Eun-yi’s naïveté might lead her to do. Sure enough, Hoon creeps into Eun-yi’s bedroom with a bottle of wine as she lies waiting for him naked in bed (a scene which is absolutely priceless in its execution). Eun-yi obviously thinks that she knows what (and whom) she is doing — Hoon is an incredibly wealthy young man with a super-hot body (and a talented pianist to boot). It is never disclosed whether Eun-yi hopes (let alone believes) that Hoon will leave Hae Ra for her, Eun-yi just seems to want to have fun…have sex with a very attractive man (and maybe earn some extra cash while doing so).
Despite his ultra-refined manners and sheer coolness, Hoon has a significant sense of entitlement — most likely from having been raised in extreme wealth — easily acquiring anything and everything that he has ever wanted. So when his pregnant wife is unable to finish him off during sex, it is only natural that Hoon proceeds to the next available nubile female body: Eun-yi.
Unfortunately for Eun-yi, the fun ends once Hae Ra’s mother (Park Ji-young) gets wind of what is going on. Soon, Eun-yi is struggling for the control of the rights to her body — Eun-yi asserts that any decisions about her body are beyond the influence of money. (Which sounds a bit ambiguous, but I would rather keep the spoilers to a minimum…) Miss Cho feels at least partially to blame for the whole mess and she does her darndest to help save Eun-yi…
A recurring criticism of The Housemaid (2010) is Eun-yi’s motivation (or lack thereof) and the inconsistency of her character — basically, Eun-yi is originally depicted as being naive but she quickly turns into an increasingly manipulative and selfish person. Personally, I think it is her naïveté that prompts Eun-yi to make all of the choices that she makes throughout the film: it is Eun-yi’s naïveté that prompts her to accept the job in the first place; it is Eun-yi’s naïveté that prompts her to begin a sexual relationship with Hoon; it is Eun-yi’s naïveté that prompts her to remain in Hae Ra and Hoon’s house and fight against their attempts to control her, rather than run away; it is Eun-yi’s naïveté that prompts her to commit her final ultimate act of rebellion.
Sang-soo’s film is a very intentional comment on South Korea’s class warfare of the new millennium: the working class versus the über-wealthy chaebol. Eun-yi is used and abused — often without her understanding the big picture — by Hoon (the chaebol), while Hoon’s amoral and cold family assumes that their money will be able to solve any and all problems. It is important to note that Ki-young’s original film focuses on Korea’s middle class of the 1950s — when South Korea’s middle class was beginning to take shape and poor people were beginning to work as the housekeepers for middle class families. Sang-soo’s film also shifts the focus from the family to the housemaid, while discarding any ambiguity about the husband’s behavior. Hae Ra and Hoon (the wealthy) are positioned as the villains of this film, Eun-yi (the working class model) as the victim.
The Housemaid (2010) is an impeccably crafted and highly stylized thriller blended with the most sublime dramatic farcicality. Hyper-modern, post-modern or post-structuralism, who the heck cares? The Housemaid (2010) is intelligent yet incredibly sexy, and features spot-on performances, dialogue, set design, cinematography, and direction. I have never seen Sang-soo’s other films — Tears, A Good Lawyer’s Wife, The President’s Last Bang, and The Old Garden — but I know which four films are getting bumped to the top of my Netflix queue. I think Kar Wai Wong, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike might just have some new competition as my favorite living Asian director.