The notorious 1960 Korean film "The Housemaid" by Kim Ki-young shocked contemporary audiences with its suspenseful descent into depravity and madness. Taking on a classic (even a cult classic) can be a daunting task. 2010's remake of the same name by Im Sang-soo maintains the same principle characters and much of the plotting, and is able to be much more graphic in nature. But despite the added nudity and sexuality--the film somehow seems much more subdued. In fact, I'll issue a cautionary warning. Billed as a thriller, "The Housemaid" really plays as a slow-burn domestic drama. Still and quiet, anyone expecting edge-of-your-seat excitement will likely be mystified by the thriller descriptive. That's not to say that there isn't much to recommend this version--I just missed some of the wildness of its predecessor. More inspired by than an actual remake, this is a glossy and dignified soap opera that maintains a surprising calm amidst increasingly melodramatic plot points.
Jeon Do-yeon (a captivating perfromer who won Cannes' Best Actress prize for 2007's Secret Sunshine) plays the titular lead. Enlisted as a maid and nanny for a wealthy family, she is soon exchanging flirtations with the family patriarch. Although irresistibly sweet and alluring (probably too much so), she makes some consciously controversial choices. As a character, she is a bit of a cipher as her excursions into impropriety don't seem to affect her in the slightest. After a series of bad actions, things start to unravel in the household as an undercurrent of domestic strife affects just about everyone. With the unfaithful husband, a pregnant wife, a little girl torn, a vengeful mother-in-law, and a put-upon house manager--it is unlikely that anyone will remain unscathed. Plots and schemes begin to surface, but through all the escalating tension--the film manages to remain inexplicably detached. The film finishes with an unexpected flourish that is likely to further divide audiences.
Visually, the film is very beautiful (man, that's a great house!). And the primary actors are all especially good. I have to shout out to the invaluable Yun Yeo-Jung. As the woman behind the scenes that really runs the household, she steals every scene that she's in. While the film is ostensibly about the new housemaid, I found this stalwart servant to be the real heart of the movie. Initially, rigid and imposing--she becomes the moral compass navigating the treacherous waters between the two opposing factions. A study of class differences and gender roles, this upscale soap opera might not appeal to everyone. I, personally, thought it lacked a bit of punch and left me more emotionally disengaged than I would have liked. But it's still a noteworthy film with many great attributes. Recommended for patient viewers who aren't expecting a thriller! KGHarris, 6/11.