Doing an elegant upholstery job on one of the key Korean films of the ’60s, writer-director Im Sang-soo demonstrates an eye for luscious surfaces but fairly ludicrous dramatic instincts in “The Housemaid.” Not just a remake but a wholesale rethink of Kim Ki-young’s deranged black-and-white classic, this high-end softcore thriller is juicily watchable from start to over-the-top finish, but its gleeful skewering of the upper classes comes off as curiously passe, a luxe exercise in one-note nastiness. Still, pic should be well served by offshore arthouses, while its Cannes competition berth will boost Im’s profile abroad.
Likely aware of the potential pitfalls of revisiting an acknowledged masterpiece (Kim’s “Housemaid,” rediscovered at a 1997 Pusan retrospective, is regularly cited as one of the top Korean films of all time), Im has opted to subvert almost every element of that film’s dramatic template. Where the 1960 pic was a middle-class morality tale about a striving Korean clan torn apart by a psychotic, sexually rapacious servant girl, the new film reshuffles its sympathies entirely, setting its melodrama among a brood of wealthy vipers who think nothing of using and abusing the naive young woman they hire to cook and clean.
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That would be Euny (Jeon Do-yeon), who’s brought in by elder housekeeper Byung-sik (Youn Yuh-jung) to work for Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), a master as handsome as his estate, and his very pretty, very pregnant wife Hera (Seo Woo). We know little about Euny when she arrives and learn little more by the end, but she seems genuinely if vaguely well-intentioned, striking up a warm rapport with the couple’s young daughter. And unlike the original maid played by Lee Eun-sim (whose homewrecking antics reportedly had auds screaming “Kill the bitch!” at the screen), Jeon’s Euny is a passive if receptive victim when Hoon surprises her in her quarters one evening and orders her to perform one of the film’s two acts of simulated fellatio.
While there’s nary a bottle of rat poison in sight, “The Housemaid” winks often and knowingly at its source, particularly in its engrossing first half: Hoon, like his earlier counterpart, is an accomplished pianist, and as in the original, the housemaid becomes pregnant, at which point the affair becomes known to all.
It’s here that the two films part company. Where Kim’s original treated the husband’s dalliance as the failure of a morally upright man, Im’s film casually dismisses it as customary behavior for the privileged elite, then introduces the cold-blooded character of Hera’s mother (Park Ji-young, looking more like an older sister), who takes a mercenary approach to getting rid of Euny.
“This is how this family solves problems,” Byung-sik remarks, spelling out almost the entirety of “The Housemaid’s” anti-rich subtext, which amounts to shooting fish in a very expensive barrel. Morphing from a dryly funny satire of upper-crust mores to a contemptuous attack on its willfully shallow characters, the pic feels strangely dated, even retrograde, especially compared with Kim’s still-vital original. (This one could be set in any era; when Euny complains that her masters have confiscated her cell phone, it feels like perfunctory acknowledgment of the present-day setting.)
One of the most protean of Korean thesps, Jeon vanishes sympathetically into a character markedly less rich than her roles in pics such as “Secret Sunshine” and “My Dear Enemy,” while Youn (who also appeared in Im’s “The President’s Last Bang” and “A Good Lawyer’s Wife”) supplies gusto and nuance as the boozy Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper who both rebukes and consoles Euny.
Best in show is the production design; pic was shot on a 2,300-square-foot set (the largest in Korean production history), all gleaming black-marble countertops and white porcelain bathtubs, the better to be artfully stained with blood when the key moment arrives. Lee Hyung-deok’s lensing is outstanding, often bisecting the widescreen frame to fine effect.