Fans of Korean cinema have a real reason to be excited with the long awaited release of the 1960 classic “The Housemaid” on DVD. The film was directed by Kim Ki Young, who was known for his controversial features, which often tackled head on themes of sexual obsession through horrific subjects. Although a popular box office hit on its original release, the film has remained unavailable for years, despite persistent rumours of its quality. Following a successful retrospective of Kim Ki Young’s works at the 1997 Pusan International Film Festival, it has gained praise and popularity around the world, and has been digitally restored and re-mastered by the Korean Film Archive and World Cinema Foundation so that modern audiences can see it as never before. This new release features some gorgeous packaging, and comes with an informative and interesting booklet, which is handily in English as well as Korean.
The film begins as middle-aged composer and music teacher Dong Sik (Kim Jin Kyu) reports a girl from the local factory for having sent him a love letter, which results in her leaving, and later dying. Her friend, Dong Sik is having problems of his own, having moved into a new, bigger house at the request of his pregnant wife (Ju Jeung Ryu) which he found difficult to afford. To earn more money, he takes on a girl from the factory called Cho as a piano student, not knowing that she was the best friend of the dead girl, and that it was in fact her who had been in love with him. When Dong Sik decides to hire a housemaid to help his wife, Cho provides a girl from the factory, who immediately sets about making a place for herself in the household, attempting to seduce him and oust his family in his affections. Inevitably, this leads to obsession and murder, and the social order comes crashing down as the two women jostle for position.
The restoration work on “The Housemaid” has been very worthwhile, and has resulted in a mostly immaculate print, aside from a few patchy scenes, and the black and white photography is wonderfully sharp. Kim Ki Young is a master director of suspense, arguably rivalling Hitchcock or Henri-Georges Clouzot at their best, and he is on fine form here, showing a subtle use of angles to increase the tension and imply psychological undertones, a far cry from the blatant spoon feeding of motivations and emotions so common in modern cinema. The film is filled with quietly sinister images, which are unsettling rather than overtly horrific, and which help to make for an ominous and oppressive mood throughout.
The camera work is excellent and surprisingly versatile, being both inventive and rare for the period, and really helps to pull the viewer not only into the story, but into the characters themselves and their various points of view. Kim shows a great use of simple suspense devices to keep the tension notching up, including an all important bottle of rat poison and the quiet tinkling of the piano, which quickly becomes a herald of dread. The film is filled with symbolism, such as the fact that the maid seems forever on the outside, sneaking in through windows and watching the family from her isolated position, and this also helps to generate a feeling of discomfort. Things do get quite shocking in places, and although obviously not particularly graphic, the film has a real sense of threat, as well a tangible air of sexual obsession and lust.
Though the setup may seem straightforward, the film is both narratively and morally complex, with many twists and shifts along the way as power in the household is gradually usurped. The film is thematically rich, and works on many different levels, charting not only a battle between the sexes, but an attack on the social class system, and the breakdown of the Confucian order. The film works superbly as a grim morality tale, criticising sexual appetites and the chasing of material things, and how they can bring ruin to the family unit. The fact that Kim seems to be suggesting that such obsessions are inevitable, both in men and women, does give it a nihilistic feel, not least since he refuses to provide an easy answer. All such themes are obviously still relevant today, and the potent mix of suspense, subtext and psychological depth makes for gripping and taut viewing.
All the of the characters are cruel and incredibly self centred, right down to the children, with a young Ahn Sung Ki on great form as the nasty little son, who takes great pleasure in teasing his crippled sister and lording it over the housemaid. Lee Eun Shim is perfect as the titular villainess, although interestingly, Kim seems to portray her as a vaguely sympathetic, or at least fully fleshed out character rather than a simple figure of destruction or femme fatale. Nevertheless, as a force of bitter nature, she apparently had audiences screaming angrily at the screen on the film’s original release, and it’s easy to see why. Kim Jin Kyu is similarly great as the (arguably self) tortured male protagonist, both controlling and being controlled by the women in his life, and pushed back and forth by his own desires and need to maintain a sense of order.
“The Housemaid” is a film which has more than stood the test of time, and which compares favourably with the vast majority of modern suspense thrillers. Still very much relevant today, it stands as a classic of cinema, and should be required viewing for any self respecting fan of Korean film.
Ki-young Kim (director) / Ki-young Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Eun-shim Lee, Jeung-nyeo Ju, Jin Kyu Kim, Sung-kee Ahn, Aeng-ran Eom, Seok-je Kang, Seon-ae Ko, Jeong-ok Na