Published: June 22, 2011
The imperiled governess is a staple of melodramatic plotting going back to Jane Eyre, but 2010 found it still surprisingly lively and adaptable in the South Korean film The Housemaid. Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) is young, attractive, struggling, and in need of a job. She finds her way into the employ of Goh Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), a smirking young über-wealthy mogul of some sort who needs someone to help run the house and look after his young daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon) while his pampered wife Hae-ra (Woo Seo) gestates twins. Good-natured, affectionate Eun-yi soon wins over Nami; she also draws Hoon’s attention, and doesn’t spurn his attempts at seduction as he draws her into a torrid affair.
So far so typical, with the stage set for some tawdry endgame, and it arrives eventually. But Eun-yi shares household duties with pulled-together older housemaid Miss Cho (Yun Yeo-jong), and that’s where writer/director Im Sang-soo’s film starts to differ from the usual domestic thriller shenanigans. Miss Cho recruits Eun-yi and notices the newcomer’s decent heart, but she also notices that Eun-yi and the boss are having sex, she notices that Eun-yi is pregnant even before she does herself, and she dutifully informs Hae-ra what’s going on. Threatened by the affair and the prospect of an illegitimate heir, Hae-ra and her scheming mother (Park Ji-young) set out to manipulate Eun-yi into an abortion, a miscarriage, or worse. Miss Cho is not only the catalyst that sets the denouement in motion, however, she is also witness and provider of perspective. She’s fond of sneaking her employers’ wine, which tends to bring out her melancholy and bitterness about the dissatisfactions and indignities of serving others as a life but can’t prevent her from seeing implacable forces lining up against Eun-yi. In short, Miss Cho helps make clear that The Housemaid is about the brutalities of class.
Im adapted his film from Kim Ki-young’s 50-year-old Korean classic of the same name, in which the employer was a struggling middle-class householder and the new housemaid the aggressor. The difference in social strata and roles in the plot machinery makes a huge difference in the impact of the story. Which is not to say that this is some kind of dry polemic: Im and cinematographer Lee Hyung-deok make the most of the luxe setting with dramatic compositions, often favoring extreme low and high angles, and the cast manages to find room to do exquisitely subtle work amid the rising stakes. The ending at first feels like an overblown misfire, even in a melodrama, but in hindsight it does carry some deeper resonances with Im’s larger, timely message: The less affluent are people too.
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