A remake of a 1960 film I had never seen or heard of, Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid is an erotic revenge thriller that doesn’t entirely work, but is twisted enough to keep you engaged the entire way. This is partly due to Sang-soo’s direction, but even more so the talent in front of the camera as each actor carries their weight every step of the way, allowing me to dote on this film a little more than I otherwise would have had it been in less capable hands. Additionally, a series of themes and happenings keep you guessing as to their meaning throughout the picture and their overall impact on the story is impressive.
What is left to live for in life if your dreams have turned to nightmares? What is left for a rich, well-to-do family if they can no longer find enjoyment in wealth and power? The wine no longer tastes the same and a birthday celebration turns into a vapid display of excess.
The morally bankrupt world of one privileged family is at the center of The Housemaid with Jeon Do-yeon playing Eun-yi, a naive restaurant dishwasher about to get an introduction to the rich and famous. Exiting her previous job, she accepts a position as an upper class family housemaid, in charge of Hoon (Lee Jeong-jae) and Hae-ra’s (Seo Woo) young daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon) and will be asked to care for Hae-ra’s twins once they are born, and she is ready to pop at any minute.
Guiding her along the way is the family’s longtime maid Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), who’s contempt for Eun-yi is noticeable from the start. They make do with their relationship, but Eun-yi’s time in this house is a lit fuse as she begins having an affair with Hoon, a self-indulgent business man who’s self-image during sex conjures memories of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho — without the axe of course.
What follows is a story of revenge, ending in such a way you will be encouraged to look back through the film for further analysis. On the surface the meaning is obvious, but there is fun to be had in examining the specifics of the story. The introduction of Nami is particularly intriguing as the camera follows her into the house only to pull back revealing a youngster who already seems more adult and more aware of what’s going on around her than her parents. Ahn Seo-hyeon is excellent in the role, joining a long line of child actors to keep an eye on.
The acting, though, is excellent on all fronts. As Byeong-sik, Yoon Yeo-jeong is not only the eyes and ears of the giant mansion where the film is set she also offers moments of levity, most notably a wide-mouthed roll of the eyes as Hoon and Eun-yi have sex on the other side of the bedroom door. Jeon Do-yeon as Eun-yi shows versatility in a role that calls for naivety, rage and a brief moment of adolescence as she sucks on a pouch of herbal medicine with all the innocence of a child.
Lee Jeong-jae plays the role of Hoon way over-the-top and at moments I would argue almost too much, though I am willing to give it a pass as there may be some affect lost in subtitle translation. Seo Woo is solid in a subtle turn as a gold-digging wife who takes satisfaction in ordering Eun-yi to clean her underwear in the bathroom sink, something her mother (Park Ji-young) questions, only to later accept as she exhibits even nastier habits than her daughter.
Putting The Housemaid together in my head was an absolute chore. I discussed and debated it with others and pieces began to fit together, but questions remain. I just wish I had a still shot from the end of the film as I believe Sang-soon left even further clues to chase before the credits began to roll. This is far from a perfect film, but I think it’s one that will stir the gray matter should you give it a shot.
The Housemaid is In Competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival and will be included in the voting for the Palme d’Or.