The original version of The Housemaid (1960) is often listed among the two or three best South Korean films of all time by local critics. The film and its director, Kim Ki-young (1922-98), were (re-)discovered internationally a little more than a decade ago. Kim, who started his filmmaking career by directing U.S.-financed propaganda movies during the Korean War, is now mostly remembered for his expressionistic melodramas marking the beginning of South Korean cinema’s fascination with horror, greed, sadism and sexual obsessions. Although Kim, himself, considered gender relations the main focus point of his art, at least in The Housemaid he combines this subject with a keen eye for the impact of social class on human relations.
Im Sang-soo (born in 1962), who has written and directed this new version, has previously dealt with marriage and sexuality in The Good Wife (2003). His satiric comedy The President’s Last Bang, about the assassination of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee by the director of the Korean Intelligence Agency in 1976, was initially censored by the Seoul Central Court in the year of its release, 2005, but the decision was overturned a year later.
The basic plot line of the two versions of The Housemaid remains the same. A young working class woman is hired as a servant by a family where the wife is pregnant. She ends up in a highly unequal sexual relationship with the husband. Once she finds herself pregnant she is the victim of psychological and physical violence, including attempted murder. When she loses her child (as a result of an attack in the first version and of forced abortion in the second) she sets out to take revenge.
In this new version Im Sang-soo has moved the story from the lower middle class environment of the 1960 film to the marble palaces of today’s super rich and the class aspect of the story has simultaneously been reinforced. Sexual obsession – amour fou – is now clearly a subject subordinated to the issue of economic power relations. In the earlier film the servant actively desires the position of the wife, both in terms of class and sexuality. In the 2010 version she initially passively accepts her fate as someone to be made use of as her master sees fit. If Kim Ki-young’s film has often been compared to the works of Luis Buñuel, Im Sang-soo’s version, although it ends on a decidedly surreal note, reminds me more of Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995).
When Eun-yi, the name of the servant in this new version, first arrives in the home of the wealthy young couple and their four or five year-old daughter she finds the family almost overwhelmingly charming and caring. This contrasts sharply with the brusque tone prevalent in the household of the 1960 film, where a constant fear of losing their fragile and newfound middle class status makes the family hard and bitter in their dealings both with each other and with their servant. It is as if the servant in this earlier film is seen as a threat simply by her constant presence, reminding the family of the degradation that might be, with just a bit of bad luck, waiting also for them around the corner.
Such fears are entirely alien to the family of Im Sang-soo’s film. They can afford a façade of politeness that is, as the precocious daughter with chilling insight explains to Eun-yi, nothing more than a means of manipulating people whilst really thinking only of oneself. This, her dad has taught her.
Im Sang-soo has also added a character that plays a crucial role in the story in the shape of an older servant, a housekeeper who has spent her entire life in the service of this family. She knows exactly how they function. She finds her work repulsive. Alone in her room at night she drinks in solitude and gives in to fits of rage, releasing all the emotions she struggles to keep locked in under the strict uniform she wears all day every day. She knows it means absolutely nothing when the young master politely calls her ‘Madam’. And she gives Eun-yi a crash course in class consciousness, but is still the one who cannot keep herself from informing the wife of Eun-yi’s pregnancy, exposing the latter to the wrath of the hated employer. Thus, the emotional indoctrination of class society wins out over reason. Before the film ends, literally in a flaming crescendo of class rage, the housekeeper comes to regret her treachery dearly.
The Housemaid (2010) has slowly been finding its way onto screens internationally during 2011. It had a limited release in the U.S. in January and will open in Japan on August 27. It is also available on DVD.The 1960 version can be seen in a restored version with English subtitles free of charge here. Both films are highly recommended.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.