January 21st, 2011
Probably the most daring film that I have seen come out of Korea (not that I am some sort of authority on the subject), Kim Ki Young‘s Housemaid (1960) stars just about every abominable human behavior there is: lying, cheating, abuse, and murder. What’s so amazing about it is that it was not done a là Lars Von Trier, where the gore takes over everything in what amounts to a fairly conventional display of torture porn.
Every character in this movie behaves in the complete opposite way that you expect them to, and we also percieve them in a different way from what we would normally expect. Vile characters are worthy of our pathos, virile characters behave like cowards, and little children are treated with disdain–even when they are crippled. An added pun to the title–Hanyeo–is lost in the translation. The word for “maid” hanyo takes two charachters in hanja: ha (下) “lower” or “base”, and nyeo (女) “woman”. The base woman here being the housemaid wonderfully played by Eun-shim Lee–with the added exception here that “the maid didn’t do it.” The movie’s title is indeed written in hanja instead of hangul, almost as if to emphasize this.
This movie is so sublime that it’s even hard to describe all the alternating levels of meaning involved in the plot. There is a lot of subversion and questioning of conservative Korean attitudes even though there is an almost 1950’s moralistic styling to the film. At the very end we actually get admonished by one of the main characters on the perils of “the male wandering eye.” All this moralizing was probably required by the censors and can’t possibly be taken seriously when weighed against all the laws that this upwardly mobile and perfect suburban family find themselves breaking. Not only are a lot of taboos dealt with in the film, the roles of villain and victim get completely overturned by the characters: the person we expect to snap out and kill everyone (the maid) restrains herself from doing so, and the people who are supposed to be the victims (the family) grow increasingly disdainful, abusive, and inhuman. The male protagonist of the film, piano teacher Kim, is at first a very righteous, and virile personage, but as he gets more and more ensnared by his maid’s vagina, he grows pathetic and then downright corrupt. The “corrupting element,” the maid, grows from an unassuming dumbass, to victim, to dragon-lady, and is probably the only one who manages to come out of the whole affair without crap on her face.
This film wraps a devastating blow with a silk glove. The photography is no less daring, and the writing is phenomenal. After 45 years, the laws against adultery and abortion which weighed so heavily on the characters’ motivations remain pretty much the same in Korea, so I am intrigued to see Im Sang-soo‘s remake of this masterpiece.
You can watch the original in fairly good quality through the link at the top of the post. I would have hosted it myself, but I don’t need the lawsuits..! 😛 Anyway, enjoy!
**update** Kim Ki-yong spins in his grave**
So I couldn’t help myself and I went and saw the remake, and it is AWFUL…! This cat is not amused. @_@
Spoiler alert: the remake SUCKS! Oh heavens…where should I begin..? Was it the fact that Im sang-soo gave a free pass to every single one of his characters by prviding ample comfort zones for them? In Im’s version Eun-yi (the housemaid) is a victim true and through. She is decidedly smarter than the original character, but apparently not crafty enough to exact revenge on her abusers. Im’s housemaid’s idea of revenge consists of hanging herself in front of the whole family and then–get this–she busts into flames. Spontaneously… just like that! :-/ Yeah, nice going housemaid. That should show them!
Im added a whole bunch of new characters including a crusty old housemaid brilliantly played by Yun Yeo-jong. Probably she is the only one trying hard enough to portray a complex character. Everyone else is too busy being a cheesy, illustrated-novel character. In Im’s version the piano teacher is a busy aristrocat who just happens to play the piano (flawlessly, we are led to believe). We don’t know what he does for a living, but apparently he is super rich. His wife is an average simpleton who goes from a clueless sweet doll, to evil bitch, but not on her own… oh no. She needed assistance from a very wicked mother who convinces her to poison the housemaid so she will abort. And this is where I think Im fucked things up: the 2 most tense themes from the original film get completely anihilated in this movie. The first one is the poison which seems to be itching to get used in the original (but never does). Here it gets used like cheap underwear. The second one is probably the most tragic. In the original, teacher Kim is a self-righteous paragon of virile confucian moralism who ends up acting the coward whenever his interests seem to be in jeopardy. Im traded Kim for aristocrat Hoon, who is completely debauched from the very begining, so choice was completely stolen from him. Of course he fucked the housemaid! We wouldn’t have expected anything less from him. So while in the original you really don’t know what’s going to happen next and the story gets weaved by each individual desicion that a character takes, in the remake you just sort of sit there waiting for what you know will happen (except for that really idiotic ending, complete with non-sensical Konglish and a Marilyn Monroe imitation courtesy of the housewife). W T F . . ? @_@