'Housemaid' Seduces with Subtle Nuance

Photo: Bleak house. Im Sang-soo's 'The Housemaid' concerns itself with domestic power plays. Jeon Do-Yeon stars as the strangely unreadable Eun-yi, whose anger is a force to witness.
Ifc Films/Courtesy
Bleak house. Im Sang-soo's 'The Housemaid' concerns itself with domestic power plays. Jeon Do-Yeon stars as the strangely unreadable Eun-yi, whose anger is a force to witness.

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If there's anything to take away from Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid," (Korean: "Hanyo") it's this: Don't mess with the help.

The help in this film is of a tough, intriguing breed - one that blends docility and lower-class determination, with a little bit of thigh. Housemaid Eun-yi's (Jeon Do-yeon) move from the food market's grimy stalls to a high-society home marks her introduction to a new brand of tough, where, despite her adaptability, she's a bit out of her element.

The culture within the household is of a totally different nature: Here, the power differentials between servant and master are echoed by those between husband and wife and mother and daughter. Everyone is pleasant, no one is unkind, the house is seemingly perfect; yet the smoothness of its operation relies on a cold civility and passive submission to the way-things-are.

Demanding that submission is business executive Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae), the family patriarch whose class and self-satisfied smirk reveal a universe of abused privilege. His character is framed by that of the house: Handsome, intimidating, impressive, both are plagued with the emptiness of entitlement. With both the world and the film's women waiting at his fingertips, he takes advantage of their deference, also exploiting the maid's vulnerability, forcing himself into her room after hours.

Jeon Do-yeon's Eun-yi is an anomaly, the embodiment of domesticity and the picture of obeisance. But her naivete and acquiescence also contribute to a moral ambivalence. Feeling no anxiety or remorse even when rubbing the stomach of Hoon's pregnant wife, Hae-ra (Seo Woo), her betrayal is of the uncomplicated kind: To the maid, relations with the husband she sleeps with, and those with his wife, are entirely separate matters. To the wife and her mother, however, the distinction is not so clear.

Yet Eun-yi is a character whose relatability roots the film in a different tradition than that of Kim Ki-young's original. Whereas the 1960 version was mired in domestic melodrama and thrilling camp, Im distinguishes his work in its attempt at emotional relevancy. Replacing the spectacle that typifies Kim's "Housemaid," Im's iteration channels a more nuanced emotional thread: Whereas the original housemaid was pitted as a psychotic bully, Eun-yi's fixation garners empathy. In this film, she is aptly placed as victim of the circumstances she falls into, rather than the tireless tyrant of a imperfect-yet-ennobled household. Horror, here, is supplanted with depth.

Like the slow-zooming camera featured within its shots, Im's "Housemaid" is a seduction with slow reveals and prolonged explication. Evoking cinematography like that of Hitchcock, the camera probes further into the house's hidden subtleties, where bitter feuds are dealt with behind closed curtains, and bitter circumstances are, for the most part, accepted as part of the deal.

The stark black-and-white images of the original film recall a '50s mood and Western aesthetic, full of movement. Im's frames lounge in a lavish void, utilizing its emptiness for rich effect. This contradiction between composition and content mirrors that of the emotional complexity and nuance, creating a film that lingers and preoccupies long after it's over.

Liz Mak is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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