×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Housemaid

Helmer Im Sang-soo demonstrates an eye for luscious surfaces but ludicrous dramatic instincts.

With:
With: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Youn Yuh-jung, Seo Woo, Park Ji-young, Ahn Seo-hyun, Hwang Jung-min, Moon So-ri, Kim Jin-ah.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

The Housemaid

South Korea

Production: A SidusFNH release of a SidusFNH-Benex Cinema Fund1 presentation, in co-presentation with Michigan Venture Capital/CJ Venture Investment/Stareast Digital Lab/Hanwha Entertainment Fund No. 1, of a Mirovision production, in co-production with SidusFNH. (International sales: Mirovision, Seoul.) Produced by Jason Chae. Executive producers, Choi Pyung-ho, Seo Bum-seok. Co-producers, Choi Pyung-ho, Kim Dong-won, Kim Kyung-hyun. Directed, written by Im Sang-soo, based on the 1960 film directed by Kim Ki-young.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Lee Hyung-deok; editor, Lee Eun-soo; music, Kim Hong-jip; supervising art director, Han Ah-reum; art director, Bae Jung-yoon; set decorator, Yang Hyeon-mi; costume designer, Choi Se-yeon; sound, Eun Hee-soo; associate producer, Kim Jin-sup; assistant director, Seo Jung-Hhun. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 13, 2010. Running time: 106 MIN.

Cast: With: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Youn Yuh-jung, Seo Woo, Park Ji-young, Ahn Seo-hyun, Hwang Jung-min, Moon So-ri, Kim Jin-ah.

More Scene

  • United States Attorney for the Southern

    'Jeffrey Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself' Is Peak Meme After Art Basel Prank 

    From Bye, Felicia to The Dress, memes have provided the ideal discursive forum for our ever dwindling attention spans. On this side of the century, most memes have been byte-sized digital novelties that fizzle away without manifesting in the meatspace. But as the gap between URL and IRL draws closer, memes are spilling into real [...]

  • NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER

    Donna Karan, Mary-Louise Parker Honored at David Lynch Foundation's Women of Vision Awards

    Donna Karan, Mary-Louise Parker and Deborra-Lee Furness were celebrated for their charitable work at the David Lynch Foundation’s 2019 Women of Vision Awards. “We are all being guided to come together as one. There is so much chaos in the world right now,” Karan said, while accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual luncheon on [...]

  • Bill Hader

    Bill Hader, Greg Berlanti, Margie Cohn and Cindy Holland Inducted Into Variety Hall of Fame

    Variety’s annual Hall of Fame ceremony mixed comedy, gratitude and warmth at the annual awards ceremony Tuesday night at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Because the class of 2019 celebrates technical innovation and achievement across film, TV, digital, video games and music. The honorees — Greg Berlanti, Bill Hader, Cindy Holland, Dametra Johnson-Marletti, [...]

  • Billy Porter FNAA

    Billy Porter Explains Why Fashion 'Can and Should' Be Activism

    On Tuesday in New York City, a handful of fashion’s marquee names, including Kenneth Cole, Tommy Hilfiger, Steve Madden and Pete Nordstrom, and many of its muses, including Billy Porter, Lena Waithe, Adriana Lima and Paris Hilton, gathered to celebrate the annual Footwear News Achievement Awards — or, as it’s more colloquially dubbed, the “Shoe Oscars.” Activism and the potential for designers to spur [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content