The AFI Fest offered an intriguing proposition on Sunday afternoon: back-to-back screenings of South Korea’s most famous classic film, Ki-young Kim’s The Housemaid (1960), together with Sang-soo Im’s 2010 remake/re-imagining. It wasn’t an entirely successful event – problems with the digital print of the older version meant the new one was screened first, which was obviously undesirable, and the older came on a DVD in the end, with ropey sound syncing. But they are both interesting films, and the original at least is worth seeing under any circumstances, if only for its strangeness (free on mubi.com, for example). And they are different enough that in fact one does not really need to discuss them together. But I am going to anyway.
The 1960 version takes place almost entirely in the newly-built house of a nice young couple who’ve overstretched themselves financially, yet need to take on a housemaid. The husband gives piano lessons, and foxy Ms Cho, one of his pupils, brings a friend from the factory to work as the maid (a magnetic Eun-shim Lee). Before long they have both declared their love for him. Cho is out of the picture without too much difficulty, but Lee is another matter, immediately tagged as a bad girl for her smoking habit. She appears repeatedly at the night-time window with the frightful intensity of Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus, committing atrocious acts of violence, but also manipulated by the couple into a terrible act of self-harm and imbued with just enough humanity that she cannot be written off as simply a nut-job. The melodrama runs high, the hysterical horror of the hothouse atmosphere ratcheted up with generous use of thunderstorms and sinister symbolism, and the presence throughout of a bottle of rat poison. The wife’s perpetual refrain that none of this would have happened if she hadn’t wanted a bigger house gives the film a bitter, if not 100% convincing sociological undertow – Korea’s new middle-class overstretching itself – and the unexpected ending frames the film as a case study in male/female relations in a way that is at least (deliberately) amusing if not entirely convincing.
The modern version shifts the focus from the couple to the maid, and removes all ambiguity from the former’s behaviour, to position them firmly as the villains. They are not struggling middle-class however, but fabulously rich with the sort of inherited wealth that means Hoon, the husband, has known no life other than being able to have whatever he wants. Kim also alters the Ms Cho character into Mrs Cho, the older housemaid who appears first to be a sort of sinister Mrs Danvers, but becomes a much richer character, and commentator on class distinctions, through a wonderfully textured and funny performance from Yeo-jong Yun. Do-yeon Jeun is similarly gradual in revealing herself as Eun-yi, the new housemaid, seemingly child-like but already divorced, apparently subservient but with a strong streak of willfulness. She is cast almost completely as the victim here – even before we see her bending over to clean the bath in her little maid’s skirt, we know there’ll be trouble from the commanding, sculpted Hoon. His foxy little wife, with big doll eyes and bee-stung lips (Seo Woo) is ginormously pregnant with twins, but you know he’d be at it anyway. Her deliciously scheming, glamorous mother appears on the scene to sort things out and things go worse for Eun-yi when she declares decisions about her body to be beyond the control of the all-powerful rich. The class distinctions would have benefited from considerably more ambiguity – the family are borderline two-dimensional evil, and of course being a housemaid is a shitty job – but an epilogue breaks out the vicious absurdity to fine effect. It manages to claw back some good will from the finale proper, which sees Eun-yi flip unconvincingly into crazy, and makes all-too-obvious sense of the film’s unnecessary, semi-documentary prologue. But Im builds several scenes around a superbly tingling erotic tension and much of the whole is filmed with a pleasing elegance to the movement and framing (unnecessarily excessive use of handheld aside); and even if the meat of its themes fails to satisfy, the performances of Jeun and especially Yun certainly don’t.