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The Housemaid (Hanyo, 하녀) (2010)

Director – Im Sang-soo – 2010 – South Korea – Cert. 18 – 110m

****

The husband of a well-heeled family has an affair with the new maid, arousing the ire of his loyal housekeeper and ruthless mother – screening on Wednesday, November 17th with a director Q&A as part of a strand of films celebrating actress Youn Yuh-jung (Best Supporting Actress, Minari) at LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th; the film is also showing on BFI Player subscription

It’s inevitable that a South Korean film with this title invites comparisons with Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film of the same name, a watershed in Korean cinema. Whatever its virtues, Im Sang-Soo’s film can’t similarly be a watershed. If it’s based on that film as its end credits claim, it abandons the original’s central thesis. The housemaid here is not a social climber intent on seducing the husband. Rather, the family are part of the pampered super-rich elite, a small girl Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun, star of Okja, Bong Joon Ho, 2017) who takes having a maid for granted, a heavily pregnant wife Hae-ra (Woo Seo) who thinks the difficulties of having to raise children yourself are “for common people” and a husband Hoon Go (Lee Jung-jae from TV mini-series Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2021) who, unable to get full sexual services from his pregnant wife, seeks his pleasures with the new maid Li Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) who appears, initially at least, somewhat uncomfortable with the idea, but then goes with the flow.

This paints an unflattering portrait of the extremely well-heeled. The husband is basically a spoiled child, a man from a family where, as his mother confides, all the men have always got their own way and every one of them behaves the same way as he does. His pregnant wife, who expects to be waited on constantly hand and foot by her domestic staff, is scarcely better. His mother holds much of the power and is the one who takes decisive action, “accidentally” falling into a ladder to cause the pregnant (even if she doesn’t know it yet) Eun-yi to fall over a banister rail, cling to a chandelier for dear life them fall two storeys and be temporarily hospitalised. Later, mother tampers with her maid’s packets of herbal drink, adding poison to make sure she miscarries.

Nothing goes on in that house without my knowing,” says housekeeper Cho Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung) who elsewhere describes her job as R-U-N-S – revolting, ugly, nauseating and shameless. If our sympathies are with the maid while the grown up family members as represented by the weak husband, the closeted wife and the ruthless mother – the latter straight out of the Hitchcock playbook (see, for instance, Notorious, 1946, where the mother-in-law poisons the wife’s drink) – are the indisputable villains of the piece, the housekeeper is more complex than any of them. It’s she, not the wife, who discovers what’s going on and alerts the mother. For all her protestations to the maid and verbalised concern for Eun-yi’s well-being, if the housekeeper had kept quiet, the mother would not have got involved until later and the drama might have played out differently.

All of which is in sharp contrast to the innocent small child who, while the mother-in-law and daughter are “being nice” to the maid whilst in reality plotting against her, tells the maid that grandma pushed the ladder on purpose. “I feel bad, “ says the child, “because you’re a good person.” You can’t help but wonder how she’s going to relate to this selfish family and its elitist values as she grows up: will she be corrupted like the adult women, or will she somehow rebel or walk away from them?

It’s all good, effective thriller material with a strong dramatic component, if nothing like as edgy and twisted as the Kim Ki-young original. Nor, the housekeeper aside – played incidentally by the one cast member who, curiously, began her film career playing in Kim’s Woman Of Fire (1971), his first remake of The Housemaid, are the characters anywhere near as complex. Furthermore, it lacks anything comparable to that director’s arresting visual style. Rat poison certainly doesn’t get a look in. Im’s film does, however, mine that popular sentiment that the rich are taking the rest of society for a ride which also underpins such Bong Joon Ho audience-pleasers as Snowpiercer (2013) and Parasite (2019). And, to Im’s credit, he manages to pull off at least one unexpected, bravura moment towards the narrative’s end.

The Housemaid plays Wednesday, November 17th 6.10pm at Genesis Cinema, Mile End book here with a director Q&A as part of a strand of films celebrating actress Youn Yuh-jung (Best Supporting Actress, Minari) in LKFF, The London Korean Film Festival which runs from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th. The film can also be found on BFI Player subscription.

2012 UK Release Trailer:

Trailer (orchestral soundtrack):

LKFF 2021 Trailer:

Youn Yuh-jung films currently or recently available…

LKFF (London Korean Film Festival): Woman Of Fire (Kim Ki-young, 1971), The Bacchus Lady (Lee Je-Yong, 2016), Canola (Chang, 2016), Ladies Of The Forest, Kim Cho-hee, 2016)

Three films by Im Sang-soo: A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003), The Housemaid (2010), Heaven: To The Land Of Happiness (2021). All three films feature a director Q&A.

Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel (free): Insect Woman (Kim Ki-young, 1972)

MUBI (in New South Korean Cinema season): The Bacchus Lady (Lee Je-Yong, 2016), Lucky Chan-sil (Kim Cho-hee, 2019)

BFI Player: The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo, 2010)

Curzon Home Cinema: Beasts Clawing At Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

Other major platforms: Beasts Clawing At Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020), Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020) 2020/2021 Best Supporting Actress Oscar

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