×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Housemaid’

An orphaned country girl finds work as a housekeeper on a haunted estate in Derek Nguyen's ripe period ghost story, set in 1953 Vietnam.

Director:
Derek Nguyen
With:
Nhung Kate, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Phi Phung, Kien An, Rosie Fellner. (English, Vietnamese dialogue)
Release Date:
Feb 17, 2018

1 hour 44 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5860084/

Perched in the brilliant green lushness of Vietnam during the First Indochinese War, an old plantation estate becomes a locus point for the collision of history, supernatural horror and mild eroticism in Derek Nguyen’s “The Housemaid,” a hearty but over-seasoned bowl of genre pho. Not to be confused with the 1960 Korean classic of the same name (or its 2010 remake), the film courts exploitation in summoning the real ghosts of Vietnam’s colonial past for gothic shocks, all while teasing out a glossy wartime romance. The sheer busyness of the conceit is both asset and liability, whipping up a tonally calamitous mélange that’s nonetheless compelling for its absence of caution. Though the movie opened in its home country two years ago, an IFC Midnight release in the States stands to revivify it for niche audiences, especially on streaming platforms.

With an anti-French revolt raging well outside its borders, the staff at the Sa-Cat estate, once a rubber plantation that thrived on slave labor, has bunkered in against the forces of change. When Linh (Nhung Kate) turns up looking for a housemaid job, the stern head housekeeper, Mrs. Han (Kim Xuan), takes pity on the mysterious applicant, who lost her entire family in a bombing run and walked 40 kilometers from her village in search of work and shelter. While Linh is grateful for a place to live, the other servants at Sa-Cat, such as her mentor Ngo (Phi Phung) and Mr. Chau (Kien An), a glowering woodcutter, don’t live at the house because they believe it’s haunted. Legend has it that Mistress Camille, the mad wife of the estate’s French owner, Sebastien (Jean-Michel Richaud), strangled their infant in its crib and drowned herself in a lake out of depression and resentment over her husband’s absence.

When Sebastien returns from the war with a bullet wound, Linh is tasked with nursing him back to health, which leads inevitably to a lightly sensual intimacy developing between the two. Just as France and Vietnam seem to be reaching an accord in the bedroom, Sebastian’s other ex, Madeleine (Rosie Fellner), arrives from Paris and immediately senses that Linh isn’t the quiet, subservient maid that she appears to be. Meanwhile, Camille’s ghost and an army of the zombie dead are raising hell on the plantation grounds while ugly revelations about Sa-Cat’s past as a sadistic labor camp are burbling into the present. Everyone in the house seems to be hiding some sinister truths about themselves, and it’s up to Linh to sort the evil from the virtuous.

At first, Nguyen compartmentalizes all the competing elements in the story, isolating the various hauntings into discrete gothic set pieces while giving the burgeoning romance between Linh and Sebastian its own space. There’s a solid stretch of “The Housemaid” that could be mistaken for a steamy colonial liaison, with Jerome Leroy’s foreboding horror score suddenly lightening and a star-crossed affair between a French officer and Vietnamese villager gaining some heat. But the film improves when it does everything at once, and a crosscurrent of old grudges, new passions and strange goings-on converges at a frenzied tempo.

When its many secrets spill out in the finale, “The Housemaid” has to cheat a little to pull off a humdinger of a twist, but it’s enormously satisfying anyway, if only for bringing the core historical conflict back to the fore. As a consequence, one major supernatural plot point is essentially rendered a red herring, laid to rest without a persuasive explanation. But Nguyen’s maximalist style was always bound to leave a few threads hanging in favor of keeping the action lively, provocative and blissfully unpredictable. Some sequences suggest an “Evil Dead” knock-off, others a paperback bodice-popper. Best just to hang on for the ride.

 

Film Review: 'The Housemaid'

Reviewed online, Chicago, Feb. 20, 2018. Running time: 104 MIN.

Production: An IFC Midnight (U.S.) release of a CJ Entertainment presentation of a Happy Canvas production, in association with HK Film. Producers: Timothy Linh Bui, Yuno Choi, Ha Quynh Vu, Nguyen The Phong. Executive producer: Louie Nguyen.

Crew: Director, writer: Derek Nguyen. Camera (color): Sam Chase. Editor: Stephane Gauger. Music: Jerome Leroy.

With: Nhung Kate, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Phi Phung, Kien An, Rosie Fellner. (English, Vietnamese dialogue)

More Film

  • Guillermo del Toro Alec Baldwin Tribeca

    Guillermo del Toro on Why It's a Director's Duty to Always 'Exceed the Budget'

    Guillermo del Toro has some advice for directors that would leave most studios shaking. “As a director, it is your duty to always responsibly exceed the scope and exceed the budget,” he said. “If you have enough time and enough money, you’re f—ing up.” Del Toro dropped that bit of wisdom during a chat with [...]

  • Michael Hutchence

    Film Review: ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence'

    “Mystify” — a portrayal of charismatic INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who committed suicide in 1997 at the age of 37 — makes powerful use of family and personal footage to tell the story of a talented man beset by personal demons, but illuminates the influence of a serious head injury that he hid from the [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein

    Harvey Weinstein Sex Crimes Case: Judge Bars Media From Hearing

    Harvey Weinstein’s Friday court hearing in his rape and sexual assault trial will be closed to the media and the public, New York Supreme Court Justice James Burke ruled. The issue of whether or not the movie mogul’s latest court appearance will remain public has been hotly contested in recent weeks. News organizations such as [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame' Soars to Record-Breaking $60 Million Opening in North America

    Disney-Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” has opened astronomically in North America with a record $60 million in Thursday night preview showings. It’s the top domestic preview number of all time, besting “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” at $57 million in 2015. Imax showings scored brought in $4.8 million at 412 locations, the third-highest total of all time. [...]

  • Sophia Anne Caruso and Alex Brightman'Beetlejuice'

    'Beetlejuice' Musical Team Hopes to Attract New Audiences to Broadway

    In the new Broadway adaptation of Tim Burton’s 1988 cult classic film “Beetlejuice,” teenager Lydia takes center stage alongside the titular gut-busting demon (Alex Brightman) to reflect the famed goth girl’s journey through Beetlejuice’s funhouse of death and disaster. “I think so many people connect to ‘Beetlejuice’ because it’s a story of outsiders, Lydia being [...]

  • Chris Hemsworth'Avengers: Endgame' Film Premiere, Arrivals,

    Is Chris Hemsworth Ready to Leave the 'Avengers' Franchise?

    Chris Hemsworth isn’t exactly sure when he’ll leave the “Avengers” franchise. “There will come a day,” the “Thor” star told me when we sat down to chat for the second episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeartMedia’s new film podcast. “Whether it’s now or in the future, I don’t know. … Who knows what [...]

  • Michael B. JordanLAFH Awards 2019, Los

    Michael B. Jordan, Ronda Rousey Join Efforts to Help the Homeless

    Michael B. Jordan and WWE star Ronda Rousey were just two of the powerhouses that gathered in Hollywood Thursday night for the LA Family Housing’s annual fundraising celebration. The live-auction event, which brought together hundreds of top industry executives, philanthropists and government partners, aimed to raise $2 million for LAFH, which builds permanent housing and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content