Accepting the caveat that we get only the really, really good stuff on our shores, it’s hard not to feel like the foreign film market is just doing it better. Anything remotely horrifying or dramatic, Australia and the Asian markets have just been knocking it out of the fucking park. Almost every Korean film I’ve seen over the last few years has been devastatingly good. Sang-soo Im’s The Housemaid is no exception. If you want to see a great example in the vein of Bunuel of the excesses of the upper class, you need look no further than this film. It’s an exceedingly well-trod and simple plot: a wealthy executive begins nailing the new nanny and the rest of the family reacts with scheming and manipulation. However, this reaction takes on Machiavellian levels of awfulness. It’s like a page plucked straight from the Borgia playbook — even scrawled with all the dirty sex doodles and stained with drops of blood. Every character in the film is fully-realized, complex and fantastically rendered: a chess board adorned with intricate pieces worthy of master play. I kept getting duped by red herrings — for once I was looking behind the curtain for the twist and missed the simplicity of the obvious. And the ending would have made Bunuel and Renoir do a Salvador Dali leap with glee and kittens.
The film opens with a young girl leaping to her death in a busy downtown district. While there is one initial scream, most of the people gawk or rush to see the corpse. They’re are even a few folks on cellphones, possibly taping the scene. Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon) begs her roommate to leave their kitchen job to rush over and see the body. Then the two go home. It’s a strange open, because you have no idea who this girl is, what her relation to the story or anything other than the certainty that she’ll jump. And when she does, it’s handled with such little fanfare. It’s merely something happening, excitement in an otherwise busy life buzzing around it. It’s a curious ill portent for future events.
Eun-yi is hired on by Byung-sik (Yeo-Jong Yun), also known as Mrs. Cho, the older maid, as a nanny to a wealthy couple. The wife Hae Ra (Seo Woo), a young beauty, is massively pregnant with twins due soon, and needs a second nanny to tend to her needs as well as care for her young daughter Nami (Seo-Hyeon Ahn). Her husband, Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee), enters flanked by bodyguards and casts about like a young princeling. He interrogates the young Eun-yi, gives her the once over, and then goes about sipping wine in a manner that would make Paul Giamatti roseate.
A remake of the original 1960’s film The Housemaid, the film feels a bit like royalty. Even more accurate would be to describe it as a sleek-ass soap opera. The characters are wonderful. Eun-yi is almost like a small child, bouncing around, pouting, playful. Even when she engages in an affair with her master, it almost feels like watching kiddie porn. It’s unnerving. Especially when you consider Nami, the young six year old who acts like an adult. Her dialogue and mannerisms are fantastic, from her answers to Eun-yi. It’s a beautiful dichotomy: an adult in the body of a child being cared for by a child in the body of an adult. And nobody had to hire Dudley Moore or Judge Reinhold!
And then we have the family. Hoon, a son of wealth, stalks about with this veneer of entitlement, slurping wine and pretty much doing as he pleases. Hae Ra gets more interesting as the film progresses. As a rich wife, she seems disaffected, but then feels like she has to fight to maintain her husband’s affections, and becomes predatory. This is only topped by Hae Ra’s mother (Park Ji-yeoung), who’s like a demon Cruella de Ville. When she suspects — not discovers, no proof, just suppostion — she arranges an accident that’s so chilling in its execution, it’s wonderful. Mrs. Cho hates everyone, putting on a frosty demeanor just to survive the household, so she becomes like a drill instructor/confidante for Eun-yi. She’s the only one who’ll make an effort to save her, but in the same regards she also acts as if she’d destroy her too.
The film does get melodramatic, but the characters are so strong, you can forgive them their foibles. Towards the end, Eun-yi does seem to lose the charms that made her so wonderful. Also there are lots of little touches that I thought would have made for interesting subtext and subplots that get completely abandoned. People keep congratulating Mrs. Cho on her son’s promotion to an government prosecution position. We never see or hear mention of a husband, so it made me wonder if perhaps the son was a result of a dalliance between an elder member of Hoon’s original family, which would have lent alot to the film. But alas, nothing is made of it. Also, on the two occasions we see Eun-yi and Hoon engaging in sex, she finishes him off with her mouth. Which would make pregnancy pretty tricky. And which could have created a phenomenal twist in the storyline. But, it doesn’t choose to go there. As I said, it’s more of a slick and shiny “Desperate Housewives” type vibe. Only, you know, good. All in all, it’s a thoroughly satisfying film that ends on such a surrealistic note.