Jamie Reviews Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid [PIFF 2011 Review]

You pretty much know where this one is going to go. A pretty young girl is hired to work as the live-in maid and nanny for a rich family. Her name is Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon, Untold Scandal), and she’s a girl with a past that is only casually hinted at, one that includes an unexplained, massive scar on the back of her thigh. The lady of the house (Seo Woo) is pregnant with twins, and things aren’t so hot in the bedroom these days, despite her husband’s healthy sexual appetite. We don’t know what Hoon (Lee Jung-Jae, Il Mare) does for a living, but it’s pretty clear he was born into money. He has a taste for wine, a talent for piano playing, and a significant ego. On a family vacation, once his young daughter (Ahn Seo-Hyeon) is in bed, Hoon moves to the nanny’s room, starting up a sexual relationship that has predictable consequences. Oh, and there is a creepy older maid (Yun Yeo-Jong) who sees everything and seems to be on no particular side but her own.

The Housemaid is directed by Im Sang-soo (The President’s Last Bang), and it’s a remake of a 1960 Kim Ki-Young movie. I haven’t seen the original, so I can’t compare, but I’m sure the salacious eroticism of this updated version far surpasses the source. The Housemaid is high-end soap opera, touching on issues of class and human psychology, though, honestly, shying away from getting into either too deeply. There is an interesting dynamic to the relationships between the rich people and their servants. Hoon dominates Eun-yi, and she appears to like his commanding nature and the danger of their tryst, but not when he makes it transactional. She also takes care of some of the more fundamental physical needs of the pregnant woman, Hae-Ra, including aiding exercise, massage, and bathing her. I found it fascinating that Eun-yi served master and mistress both in ways that were sensual but totally opposite in terms of necessity and intention. It’s too bad the screenplay doesn’t explore that aspect of the material further.

Instead, Im Sang-soo, who also wrote the script, surrenders to the demands of the plot. Unsurprisingly, Eun-yi gets pregnant, and when Hae-Ra’s mother finds out, the movie is taken over by the conspiracy to remove the girl from the household with a minimum of damage. Here The Housemaid turns into a potboiler, but one that never really reaches a fever pitch, not even in its ridiculous penultimate scene (ironically enough–you’ll understand when you see it). The performances are all very good, and the movie is photographed beautifully. The interior of the family’s home is shiny and perfectly tailored, and the director and his cinematographer linger on the precise details of their manicured opulence, sometimes showing the whole construct, sometimes moving in to see the specific pieces. They shoot the sex in the same way: the first encounter between Hoon and Eun-yi is voyeuristic, with the camera placed outside the window and looking in; the next is shot more intimately, zoomed all the way in, so that the portions of their bodies we do see are just abstract shapes.

The detail is too controlled, however, and the movie never cuts loose. The Housemaid is genre trash masquerading as high art. It should be intense and garish rather than aloof and tasteful. Only in the very last scene does Im Sang-Soo reveal a more demented point of view, making for a baffling finish that had me laughing and grinning ear to ear. Had the rest of The Housemaid been as off the wall, I’d have loved it. Instead, I am indifferent to this bauble. It’s pretty, but untouchable.

The Housemaid plays the Portland International Film Festival on 2/18 and 2/19.