Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon, "Secret Sunshine") works a menial restaurant job with her best friend when she's approached by the older Byung-sik (Yeo-Jong Yun) offering her a position - after informing the girl that she entered her apartment because it was essential that she see how Eun-yi lived. But Eun-yi is a trusting soul and even after being seduced by her new boss Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee), she doesn't realize just how much her presence is upsetting the dynamics of the outrageously wealthy young family she serves as "The Housemaid."
Director Sang-soo Im ("The President's Last Bang") remakes Ki-young Kim's 1960 film with a dramatic flip - in the original, which I have not seen, it was the housemaid who seduced her boss, wrecking havoc on the family who hired her; here it is the family that preys upon the maid. This South Korean thriller owes a lot to the late Claude Chabrol - its damnation of the idle rich, its imprisoning interior designs, even poisoning - but Sang-soo Im ("The President's Last Bang") doesn't delve as deeply as Chabrol could and his film eventually implodes.
The film begins with the suicide of a young girl in Eun-yi's work district, a little too obvious of a foreshadowing event. Eun-yi is flabbergasted (as are we) when she arrives at her new home, a minimalist mansion where great rooms house only the master's grand piano, a home of modern art, classical music and expensive red wine. The ritualistic sampling of the wine by Hoon, who swirls, sniffs and sucks, is a direct lead in to the sexual games that will be played, upstairs/downstairs tied together by Byung-sik's subversive indulgence in the luxurious consumables her family casts off.
But although she is gradually becoming unenamored of that family, Byung-sik maintains allegiance to the women in it, chiefly Hoon's mother-in-law (Park Ji-young), a glamorous spider committed to keeping Haera (Seo Woo), Hoon's trophy wife who is expecting twins, upon her matriarchal throne. Byung-sik deduces Eun-yi's pregnancy before her underling is aware of it herself and immediately reports to Haera's mother. Accidents and poisoning ensue, as the women seek to abolish if not the maid, at least her unborn child. Eun-yi has her own insider, though, Haera and Hoon's little girl Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn), who likes her young nanny and confides that grandmother didn't accidently bump into the ladder Eun-yi was perched upon while cleaning that glistening, black chandelier. (Nami gets the film's best line with her creepy parroting of what her father has taught her, that while politeness may seem like a sign of respect, it is really putting herself first.) Armed with this knowledge, Eun-yi sets herself up as we once saw Haera, in the master bath, in order to brazenly inform Hoon just what's been going on beneath his roof.
The production and art director certainly do know what they're doing, even above that roof, where overhead shots reveal steps to and from the house as art installations. Stair balusters, cobwebby chandeliers and grid-patterned wall screens are visual imprisonments. A dutch angle that hides the feet of its precariously tilted piano which should slide towards our heroine but does not is a visual threat. Eun-yi lives in a black and white world which quickly plunges her into shades of gray via bathroom tiles, maid uniforms and bed linens.
One of the problems, though, with Sang-soo's film is Eun-yi's opaqueness. Jeon certainly gets us on her side, but it is difficult to reconcile the young woman who submits to and then crushes on her boss with the woman who carefully tends to his very pregnant wife. Eun-yi doesn't consider the duplicitousness of her actions until confronted by the hysterical Haera. The film's tension also begins to flag just when the melodrama begins to heat up - the less mystery in its characters' motivations, the more soap operatic it becomes. Then there's that flashy, but unsatisfying ending, an overwrought revenge which hurts its protagonist more than its target. The surreal ending, suggesting resultant madness but not a loss of bourgeois trappings even amidst nature, is tonally off, a 'heh' which should have been a 'wow.'
Robin's review coming soon...
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