Things run hot, cold in 'The Housemaid': Actress gives a spark to fable of lust
‘The Housemaid,’’ a sleek, pleasantly nasty Korean fable about power, lust, and class, manages to run hot and cold at the same time. The title character, a maidservant in a house full of bourgeoisie vipers, allows herself to be rapturously used and abused by the man of the house, and their scenes together form an erotic dance of decadence and submissive abandon. Then the bill comes due, as it must, and writer-director Im Sang-soo paints the consequences with a chill worthy of the late Claude Chabrol. Both filmmakers know the most dangerous animals are civilized men and women, especially on their home turf.
The movie is a remake and a rethink of a very good 1960 South Korean film of the same title (recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, it’s unavail able on DVD but can be watched online for free at www.mubi.com). Where the maid in the original was the story’s active agent, slyly manipulating everyone else in the house, the remake reinvents Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) as a passive but willing sexual Candide who learns the hard way not to mix work with pleasure.
Hired by the young, pampered, and very pregnant Hae-ra (Seo Woo), Eun-yi is ushered into an upscale, coolly photographed henhouse that includes a chic mother-in-law (Park Ji-young), a clear-eyed little girl (Ahn Seo-hyeon), and a bitter, aging family retainer (Youn Yuh-jung) who functions as the tale’s anti-Mrs. Danvers: She has seen everything this family can dish out and it makes her sick.
The cock of the walk is the husband, Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), an imperious business stud used to taking what he wants. He sees the new housemaid flashing a little leg while cleaning the bathtub and wants that. At least he’s thoughtful enough to offer Eun-yi a glass of wine before he peremptorily seduces her.
The secret weapon of “The Housemaid’’ — the reason it works at all — is Jeon in the title role. The actress was the incandescent star of one of last year’s finest movies, “Secret Sunshine,’’ and she is able here to walk a line between victim and lover, fool and saint, the story’s hero and her own worst enemy. Like Lillian Gish or the young Meryl Streep, Jeon seems made to suffer brilliantly onscreen, but there’s a willfulness to her characters, a spark of stubborn self-martyrdom, that twists her performances in unpredictable directions. She has a face made for cinema, too, alternately plain and lit up with sensual glory.
“The Housemaid’’ is about how this charismatic little nobody gives in to her desires and is punished for her temerity. Once the rest of the household figures out what’s going on — and it doesn’t take long — the various women unsheath their claws and go about protecting their property. Said property includes the husband and the life of leisure they expect in exchange for putting up with his adulteries. The only character who fully sees all the pieces on this domestic killing field is the little daughter, and the implicit message is that she’ll learn in time.
The movie’s a cruel pleasure that, in the end, isn’t sure where it wants to go. Im varies the tone too often, giving us a little suspense, a little black comedy, just enough hot-cha sex, a lot of class critique, some gender politics, and a surreal climax that doesn’t sum up the film’s themes and undercurrents so much as set a match to them and watch them burn. “The Housemaid’’ is gorgeously shot (by Lee Hyung Duk) and well worth seeing for Jeon’s deceptively simple performance. Unlike its heroine, though, it gets away without a scratch.