Diary of a Chambermaid about the Indiscreet Charmless
Two years ago, with support from Martin Scorsese Kim Ki-young’s first of a trilogy, sensation The Housemaid/Hanyo, was digitally restored to be shown at Cannes and other festivals. Exactly fifty years after that Korean classic comes Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid, not your cookie-cut remake but a respectful reinterpretation that flies on its own merits and incidentally levels its guns at class oppression. It is subtitled, with not enough explicit sex, kink and blood, so the masses here will probably take a pass on it and miss out on a study in decadence and aberrant psychology à la Buñuel and a more than able theatrical and VOD representative of one of Asia’s cinema centers on the international rise.
Opening sequences in a soulless Seoul offer foreshadowing in a young woman’s suicide leap to death near the fast-food eatery where Lee Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) works and in a woman visitor to the flat she shares with a coworker friend, to check her out personally for a position as maid.
The two-storey mansion at which she accepts the job is not mere background, but a presence in itself. At twenty-five thousand square feet the largest constructed set ever in Korean film history, it is more high-ceilinged, grand-staircased museum space than warm dwelling place; sparsely furnished in the modern way with wall paintings, a flashy chandelier and sundry objets d’art, it is unrelieved in black, white and lurid red-violet, cold like the family that inhabits it.
Sexual coupling seems calculated and vintage wine gives neither joy nor looseness, only head housekeeper Cho Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung) using it once for forgetful drunkenness. The long fireplace does not spread heat, and, capped with light snow, rows of low rectangular stone decorations might be coffins growing in the garden which is manicured even if no groundskeepers -- or cooks, butlers or servants -- appear.
Sorrowful Cho is dressed in impeccable severity, with newcomer Eun-yi in short skirts but also in black. Their boss, fabulously wealthy businessman Goh Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) clothes his toned body in expensive dark tailored suits, while younger wife Hae-ra (Seo Woo) favors dark blues over her twin-pregnant belly and her handsome dragon lady mother (Park Ji-young) sports smart skirt-suits.
Only the couples’ soft-eyed young daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun) has a human touch and kindness. Surrounded by stuffed animals and dolls, she takes to Eun-yi, who doubles as nanny and returns the affection, and asks that the door between their adjoining rooms be left ajar. Mrs. Cho is actually caring, too, but cloaks all vulnerability beneath an efficient unsmiling exterior. Smoking long cigarettes and holding her teacup, she arranges dinners of fancy morsels and wine -- juice for Nami -- but, the family absent, feasts with Eun-yi. Why she went from the scheming mother’s service to that of the daughter and son-in-law is puzzling; even if waiting for whatever chance may bring, she despises them all in this situation that is “R.U.N.S. -- revolting, ugly, nauseating, shameless.”
Just as his wife’s condition renders intercourse painful, Hoon eyes the new maid’s legs as she scours the odd elegant bathtub. No sooner seeing than taking, he is in the woman’s bedroom, in pajama pants with wine bottle and glass in hand. In fairness, as she confesses to her former flatmate, she expected, indeed wanted, him and lay naked under the covers. Others remark that the girl is slow, or stupid, or naïve or cunning, but she is, rather, passive and blows with the wind. He is accustomed to having whatever catches his fancy, to write off unpleasant consequences with a cheque like Scott Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and relax into competent but cold piano virtuosity; he objects to his mother-in-law’s actions after it is discovered that the housemaid is also pregnant, but his quiet anger is self-centered, not about guilt or the girl.
Lady Macbeth in ambition and actions, mother-in-law counsels her daughter to amoral patient practicality, seizes on an “accident” -- witnessed by Nami -- and then resorts to other means to avert scandal. After so long gritting her teeth with this family, Cho comes out on the side of the pregnant maid. Actress Youn is marvelous in her rendering of a faithful, emotionless façade hiding a woman’s heart underneath. Cannes 2007 Best Actress for Secret Sunshine -- only just now opening in the U.S. -- former television actress Jeon matches her, as the simple but not simple young woman who instinctively decides for motherhood and then a revenge that is un-Hollywood.
A brief coda imagines the permanent effects of her two and Cho’s decisions. Set on an autumnal lawn with “French” maids, an incongruous Marilyn Monroe take and an Addams Family aura, the bluntness of this comment on the filthy rich is an intrusion on an otherwise crafted Cannes and Toronto festivals selection, released here three weeks prior to Poetry, another fine South Korean meditation featuring a noteworthy actress.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)