The Housemaid

The Rich, the Naughty and the Mean in South Korea

         
 

28 January 2011| No Comments     by Sean Chavel

 

Bewitching, alluring, persistently challenging and the fact that it isn’t “pleasing” makes it all the more defiant. The Housemaid (Korean with English subtitles) opens with a gasping opening scene where our heroine witnesses an attention-calling public suicide. Later she will use that suicide’s preparatory methods to shock the family she works for. She has joined a full-fledged staff for a very rich and spoiled young couple with one daughter and another child on the way. She becomes involved in liaisons with the master of the house when his own wife is asleep in the other room. These “erotic” scenes are filmed in up close detail and peppered with scintillating naughty language. The oldest maid in the house overhears and then subsequently tries to subtly interfere. Attempts to prevent any more wrongdoings are made but undeterred. Troubles keep stacking up and tempers get vociferously nasty.

This very well might not be your type of movie but perhaps you are reading on just for curiosity sake. Let me first tell you about the headline talent. Jeon Do-youn plays the kinky but not so pretty housemaid (average-looking, on the frail side) and although it is likely you have never seen her in a film, I assure you she is remarkably talented. I’ve seen her in such Korean imports as “Happy End,” “Untold Scandal” and “Secret Sunshine” in which she gave such a wrenching performance as a mother whose son is taken away from her that she was awarded Best Actress at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Master Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee) has a much prettier wife in Hae-ra (Seo Woo), a pampered trophy wife but hardly a dingbat. Is he not turned-on by his wife because at the moment she is pregnant? I hardly think so to be honest. I think he does it not because sometimes he wants steak, sometimes he wants hamburger but because of something more elusive. I think he does it because he is excited by the risk factor, the exhilaration of pulling off infidelity in his own house as if it were a macho gamesmanship of charades. The housemaid, of course, thinks that she’s special and that’s why he’s fooling around with her. For the rest of the time, she too is having an adventure in deceit while working for the master’s wife.

It is undoubted to get around the problem though – not for me, but for others – that these are unlikable characters and that the story doesn’t work out in the way that you would want it to. I have seen enough movies that I personally don’t require anymore that a movie to work out in a “satisfying” way. Forget right and wrong, I am compelled by the gray areas in-between. Very few out there will agree with me, I know.

Many moviegoers out there want things to work orderly, to work conventionally, to work out in an easy and decipherable conclusion. But there is the type of moviegoer, the rare kind like me that will appreciate its perversity. That will appreciate being challenged, being provoked, being asked to interpret uncommon motivations in characters you don’t necessarily like or approve. With this film, you are asked to confront the psychological complexity of good people steered wrong. Not good people who make wrong choices and then steered right again. You won’t find politically correct ethics here.

Many Korean films take on this kind of boldness. What is gained, you asked? Well, you look with a different set of eyes and come away with an understanding of the weaknesses of human nature. You leave the theater knowing that if you ever run into similar people in real life you know now to stay clear. You often get this from Korean cinema.

I think this is a better way to “sell” it to the interested persons remaining. You know if you are the type to go if you are also the type that goes to an exotic restaurant to order the rare raw oysters and sea urchin, and that don’t care if doesn’t taste pleasingly but taste it anyway just to try something new, strange and unexpected. You are the adventurous type that enjoys branching out because branching out is what you do. You are the perverse type that can get angry at a film and yet appreciate it at the same time.

I also must mention I have rarely observed such luxuriousness of rich people in cinema. Even Charles Foster Kane could have learned some architectural tips from Master Hoon’s mansion. Maybe some moviegoers get this and will take it as another reason to go. If you ever become a billionaire you might want to contact the interior decorator from this film and use it as a blueprint. Parting note: Im Sang-Soo is the film’s director and in the press notes it says that he’s a fan of Alfred Hitchcock. His interpretation of Hitchcockian suspense must be far from normal.

106 Minutes. Unrated.

FOREIGN / SEXY IMAGES / LATE NIGHT VIEWING

Film Cousins: “Belle de Jour” (1968, France); “Disclosure” (1994); “Happy End” (2001, South Korea); “Secretary” (2002).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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