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.